Festivals of Mauritius
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The Mauritian Culture
While many countries claim they are cosmopolitan, only a few really qualify. Mauritius is one of the rare authentically cosmopolitan societies. Where else could so many towns and villages boast of a Catholic church, a Muslim mosque, and a Hindu temple within walking distance from each other? And if you are lucky, you might even find a Chinese pagoda in the vicinity! One little-known cemetery at Bambous hosts a burial ground with a Muslim and a ... Jewish section!!

A little history helps explain this peculiar mix. The French took over the island from the Dutch settlers (notorious for having eaten the Dodos down to the very last!) around 1715. The French brought over slaves from Africa (particularly from Senegal, Guinea, Mozambique and Madagascar) to work in the sugar-cane plantations. The Mauritian Creole, now in quasi-universal use on the island, probably evolved during those years as some sort of lingua franca between slaves and masters.

The British became very interested in the island in the early eighteenth century because it provided the perfect transit for ships en route to India. The British eventually won the island over from the French in 1810. British rule was essentially administrative and the French colonists were allowed to stay. Things did not change much for the unfortunate African slaves until, yielding to the pressure of abolitionists, the colonists emancipated them in the 1830s-40s. To make up for this sudden labour shortage, the British brought indentured labourers from India (mainly Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat) to the island. Within a few decades, people of Indian origin were a majority in the island.

The early twentieth century also saw the arrival of Chinese settlers (Hakka and Cantonese) who sought their fortune in retail trade. Mauritius earned its independence from Britain, following political disquiet in the 1960s. Since then the country has been under a constitutional rule particularly attentive to the political representation of the minorities and to their equal access to healthcare, education and employment. If anything, the twenty-five odd years since independence have seen a consolidation of ethnic identities, never, however, at the expense of the unity of the nation.

And if you are still wondering about the Jewish cemetery at Bambous, here's the story. Jewish refugees from East Europe (Poland in particular) tried to reach Palestine in the early 1940s to escape the Nazi persecution. They travelled down the west coast of Africa, past the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean. They were taken by the British at this point, brought to Mauritius and made to stay there until the end of the war. Some of them died and were buried in Mauritius on a ground they share with Muslims.

Taipoosum Cavadee - celebrated in January/February, depending on the full-moon day
The Taipoosum Cavadee is the main spiritual and religious celebration of Hindus of Tamil origin in Mauritius. This religious event is celebrated in honour of Lord Subramaniam also called Lord Murugan, the youngest son of the Hindu God Shiva. Lord Murugan is believed to represent virtue, youth and power. Thaipusam, one of the most important dates in the Hindu calendar, is performed in his honour every January/February, depending upon the lunar month - on a full-moon day in the Tamil month of Thai. Tamil devotees in Mauritius fast for abut 10 days during which abstinence, daily meditation and temple prayers (to Lord Murugan), a vegetarian diet are maintained. Many also sleep on a separate bed or on a mat on the floor. On the eve of Taipoosum, devotees who have made a vow to carry a 'cavadee' build their respective 'cavadees' at home, usually with the help of relatives, neighbours and friends. This is a large festive wooden structure, usually arch-shaped, covered with colourful flowers and magnificently decorated with peacock feathers and young coconut leaves. It symbolises a mountain, with an effigy of Murugan at the top. A Cavadee's size varies depending on the devotee's taste and willingness to bear the weight. Some may reach 3-4 metres in height. On the Taipoosum day, at sunrise, devotees assemble at their respective temples and converge to the nearest stream or river where they perform the sacred bath and get changed in their pink dresses, sarees and vestis (for men).

Rituals and loud intense prayers follow where many devotees willingly have their cheeks, tongue and body pierced with special Murugan needles called Vel. Some even pull wheeled altars which are attached to the back by hooks. Devotees are believed to attain a level of physical and mental harmony that ensures no bleeding takes place nor any pain is felt. These acts of ultimate devotion are performed to repay a debt, to ask Lord Murugan health or a solution to a problem or simply as an act of purification. This ceremony symbolises the eternal struggle between good and evil. While many carry the 'Cavadee' some, mainly women, carry brass pots of fresh milk. The pilgrimage starts at the stream/river bank and goes around the village or town with non-stop prayers, rituals and dances until they reach the temple. Further prayers are then performed, the milk (which amazingly never turns sour) from the pots are poured onto Lord Murugan's statuette and shared with the public and all the needles and hooks are removed from the body (again without pain or bleeding). The devotees go back home where a traditional exquisite Tamil vegetarian meal is served to relatives and friends.
Eid Ul Fitr
It is an Islamic religious celebration to mark the end of the 29-30 days' Ramadan fasting. It was celebrated on 8 January this year. All Muslims in Mauritius go to mosques for prayers and share traditional dishes (usually the beef 'byriani' - beef cooked with a large range of Indian spices in a yellowish coloured rice) and desserts with relatives and friends. The festival is marked by visits to homes of relatives and friends and to ask for forgiveness from each other for all past wrongdoings. An air of celebration pervades, with people, both young and old, in new clothes, and homes decorated

It is the most joyous festival in the Islamic calendar, for the completion of fasting marks a personal truimph for every Muslim against his base desires. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) once said upon returning from a battle in defence of Islam : "We have just returned from a small jihad to a big jihad." The big jihad he defined as the continuous battle against our base desires. Eid-ul-Fitr derives its name from zakat fitrah, the obligatory tax payable by every Muslim as part of the Five Pillars of Islam. The fitrah is to be distributed to the poor and needy.

Chineese New Year
The Chinese New Year, also called the Spring Festival, is the main Chinese celebration of the year. Sino-Mauritians usually go to the Pagoda in the morning for prayers of devotion and gratitude to God and their ancestors. The traditional brown round cakes, commonly called 'Gateau La Cire because of their wax-like resemblance, delicious sweet-potato cakes and crisps are cooked and shared with relatives, neighbours and friends. Grand Parents offers gifts to their children and grand-children in the form of a Fung Paow - a red envelope containing money. However, on the eve, when the clock strikes midnight, an outburst of big red Chinese firecrackers detonate through the streets. The Sino-Mauritians just like the Chinese, scare off evil spirits and welcome the New Year with warm wishes of happiness and prosperity.
Traditionally the Spring Festival actually begins its course a week before the Chinese New Year (the 23th of the last month from Chinese lunar calendar), with the practice of offering a sacrifice to the Kitchen God, a god sent from Heaven to each family to take charge of family's affairs and make a report on what the family has done in the past year to Heaven annually on the date of the 23th. Strangely enough, the sacrifice to the Kitchen God is the brown lotus root-like sticky cake made of rice that Mauritians call 'wax-cake'.
Maha Shivratri
Maha Shivaratri, 'Siva's Great Night', is the most profound and sacred of all Saivite holy days, honouring Lord Siva, the Source and Self of all living things. Maha Sivaratri falls on the 13th day of the dark half of the moon's passage in the month of Maasi (February/March) and is the most sacred day of all for Saivites. It is observed both as a discipline and a festivity, keeping a strict fast all day and night, taking only fruits and milk. As a special discipline of this festival, an all-night vigil is kept at the temple during which meditation and prayers are performed. All through the night, devotees pray and sing in praise of Siva, recount His glories and exploits, chant Sri Rudram, and His 1,008 names repeatedly and dedicate themselves heart and soul to Him.
Traditionally, in Mauritius, several days prior to the Maha Shivaratri, Hindus perform a pilgrimage to the Grand Bassin sacred lake.
Grand Bassin, The Sacred Lake
They erect a Kanwar - a large wooden structure decorated with white paper and mirrors, which they carry to Grand Bassin.
Devotees carrying their Kanwar to Grand Bassin
Devotees dress in white as a symbol of purification. The pilgrimage last several days as devotees walk from their respective village or town to the sacred lake. Several breaks are made along the way for a short rest and meal (bananas, water, milk or tea). Many voluntary and religious associations set up special stopovers along the road to welcome pilgrims and offer them a break and food. Local public transport authorities organise special routes to and from Grand Bassin to facilitate the access to the sacred lake.
Prayers and devotional songs are held in the Grand Bassin Temple where devotees offer *bilva leaves, fresh milk, pure water and other sacraments over the Siva Lingam (a black stone pillar symbol of God Siva).
Shiva Lingam, the mark or symbol of Lord Shiva
Other rituals are performed by the lake and some water (from the lake) collected and taken home. On Maha Shivaratri day, devotees pour the water collected from the sacred lake onto the Siva Lingam at their respective temples.
*bilva: The bilva, or bael, tree's fruit, flowers and leaves are all sacred to Siva, who wears a wreath of bilva flowers in His hair. To plant bilva trees around our home or a temple is highly meritorious and sanctifying.

Holi-Festival of Colours
Holi is the Hindu festival of colours and is celebrated in March. Holi has long traditional links with several legends. According to one popular legend, the word Holi is derived from the demoness, Holika. She was the sister of Hiranyakashyap, a demon king, who having defeated the Gods, proclaimed his own supremacy over everyone else in the Universe. Enraged over his son, Prahlad's ardent devotion to Lord Vishnu, Hiranyakashyap decides to punish him. He takes the help of his sister, Holika, who is immune to any damage from fire. Holika carries Prahlad into the fire but a divine intervention destroys her and saves Prahlad from getting burned. Thus Holi is celebrated to mark the burning of the evil Holika. It is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil.
Easter is the festival of the Christian Church celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is held (in the Western Church) on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the northern spring equinox. It is the triumph of the Son of God, the Christ, over death.
In Mauritius, it is a great festive day for all Catholics and Christians but also many Mauritians of different religious faiths. During the whole 40-day fasting period from the beginning of Ash Day, Mauritians attend masses at the church daily or weekly. Many religious associations organise special trips to different town/village churches in buses for the 40-hr prayers' week. Churches are always crowded on Good Friday, Saturday and Easter Sunday. The Head of the Catholic Church, delivers his traditional pastoral letter where he addresses one important social problem each time. Easter Day is a public holiday and is marked by family gatherings for a feast and the exchange of the traditional colourful chocolate Easter Eggs which remains the major attraction for and excitement of all children.

It is believed that the creator of the Hindu pantheon Lord Brahma started creation on this day - Chaitra suddha padhyami or the Ugadi day. Also the great Indian Mathematician Bhaskaracharya's calculations proclaimed the Ugadi day from the sunrise on as the beginning of the new year, new month and new day. The onset of spring also marks a beginning of new life with plants (barren until now) acquiring new life, shoots and leaves. Spring is considered the first season of the year hence also heralding a new year and a new beginning. The vibrancy of life and verdant fields, meadows full of colourful blossoms signifies growth, prosperity and well-being.
Ganesh Chaturthi
The festival of Ganesh or Vinayak Chaturthi, the day on which Ganesh was born. It is the most joyous event of the year . Throughout India the festival is celebrated with much enthusiasm and devotion. In Andhra Pradesh, like Maharashtra, the festival is celebrated for ten days. It is said that Ganesh was the creation of Goddess Parvati, who breathed life into a doll which she made out of the dough she was using for her bath. While it is another main Hindu festival in Mauritius, it is especially the main Marathi celebration of the year and therefore Mauritians of Marathi origin fervently celebrate Ganesha Chaturti in temples and the convergence to rivers or the sea for the sacred immersion of the Ganesha statuette.

Pere Laval
Mauritians (both catholics and non-catholics) walk to Sainte-Croix in Port Louis, to the sacred shrine of *Bienheureux Father Jacques Désiré Laval (beatified in Rome), the Apostle of the Blacks and the Curé d'Ars of the Tropics. Father Laval was beatified in 1989 after a long beatification process since 11 March 1893. Father Laval's miraculous healing powers have been officially recognised by the ecclesiastic tribunal in the early 1970's and the Sacred Congregation for the Cause of Saints on 4 December 1975. Since his death, thousands of Mauritians pray at the Pere Laval sacred shrine for a miraculous healing. The annual pilgrimage is always crowded.
*Bienheureux Father Jacques Désiré Laval - arrived in Mauritius on 14 September 1841 on the Tanjore, a ship that left his natal France on 9 February 1841. His mission was to announce God's words to the slaves in Mauritius. Once on the island, his worry was to learn the creole dialect in order to best communicate with the slaves.

Usually end of October depending on the lunar calendar Divali also called Deepavali, is the great Festival of Lights celebrated by all Hindus. In Mauritius due to the growing importance and attractiveness of this festival, it has become a national celebration with a participation of many non-Hindus nowadays. The Divali day starts with prayers and offerings (symbolising gratitude to God) at home and at the temple. The most striking features of the celebration are: the cooking of a wide variety of delicious Indian and Tamil cakes including the traditional 'Gateau Patate" (the sweet-potato cake) which are shared with relatives, neighbours and friends, new clothes, family gatherings and meals, and as from sunset the lighting of the lamps. Houses and gardens are decorated with multicoloured flashing electrical lamps and traditional Indian oil lamps in clay called the Deepa. Adults and especially children have an amazingly happy and fairy time among the lights and in the blowing of firecrakers until very late in the evening. The spirit of divali is to celebrate good over evil.