Grand Bassin or Ganga Talao as it is also called is the most revered place for the Hindu Mauritians. It is said when Shiva held river Ganga in his knotted hair to prevent flooding on earth, a few drops fell on Mauritius, creating a fresh water lake. The water of Ganga Talao (lake) is as revered as the Ganges is in India. A placid lake set amidst tranquil surroundings, Ganga Talao attracts devotees from across the island especially during month-long celebration of Shivratri when nearly five lakh devotees visit the Talao and the Shiva temple next to it.
A long drive through breathtakingly beautiful ebony tree-lined highway and then a quick turn into the road leads us to the temple. Even from several hundred meters away you can see a statue of Shiva, over a hundred feet tall, which we were told has been recently installed. The temple itself has the Shivaling and statues of several deities all around. There is Hanuman, Kali, Radha and Krishna, the Nandi etc. All amidst quiet surroundings and next to the most gorgeous lake we had ever seen.
There were a mix of visitors to the temple, local Mauritians, Indian tourists and a group of European tourists. The local Mauritians consisted of a newly married couple (accompanied by a horde of their relatives) who had come prepared with the usual pooja paraphernalia to pay obeisance to Ganga Maiyya and Shivji to seek their blessings for a happy married life, we presumed. The Indian tourists was a group of cheerful Gujaratis who seemed only too happy to compensate for the loss of missing the Navratri festival back home by seeking a darshan of Shivji. The Europeans came as a group and they appeared to be from different countries going by the mix of languages they spoke (We could decipher none, but we knew that no one was speaking in English)
At the doorstep to the temple we were wondering where to leave the shoes behind before entering when a voice from inside the temple invited us to come in. “Leave the shoes right where you are and walk in”, the voice said.
The voice belonged to Mr Satish Dayal, the secretary of the Trust running the temple. He has been a minister in the Mauritius government and currently working as an independent management consultant. His brother, a former Police Commissioner of Mauritius is the officiating priest of the temple. Mr Dayal seemed happy to see fellow Indians and when we told him that our roots were in Bihar he opened up for a longer chat. “It feels really so nice to be able to chat with someone from India in Bhojpuri, our mother tongue”, he said. He beckoned us to sit next to him on a bench and settled us in for a long chat.
“People complain to me as to how we allow scantily-clad foreigners into the the temple”, he said, warming to the chat. “But, tell me, if I asked them to come here only in modest garments, will they ever return? Will they ever dress up in a sari just to be able to visit this temple?” He continued with his irrefutable logic, “You and your wife have come here wearing jeans and T-shirts. If I were to tell you to visit this place only when you are clad in dhoti and sari, will the two of YOU bother to return?”
I must say I had to agree to him, and I nodded my assent to his assertion.
“And if they do not visit this place”, he said generally pointing in the direction of the European tourists milling around, “how will they get to know about our religion and culture?” “Absolutely true, Dayalji“, I had to agree with him.
Suddenly in the middle of our intense chat he leapt out of his seat and approached a European woman hovering around the Shivaling. He picked up a spatula, dipped it into a bowl of kumkum and anointed the woman’s forehead with a stylized version of trishul-shaped tikka, muttering something in Italian all the time he was decorating her forehead! Having finished his artistry, he held a small mirror to enable her to see this symbol of Hinduism on her visage. An appreciative nod from her, a gentle nod from him and he walked back towards me quietly waving the woman in the general direction of the donation box. The obedient recipient of the kumkum dropped some currency notes into the box. Mission complete, both for the lady and for Mr Dayal.
“What were you telling her, Dayal ji as you were decorating her forehead?”
“I was only describing the significance of this symbol to her, in her own language, Italian! You may want to know that I know eight European languages and when I gather which language the person is conversant with I describe this process and the significance of the symbol in his or her own language.
He quickly went back again, this time to a Spanish tourist (as he told us later) awaiting the kumkum treatment. This process continued for about 8-10 times through our 30 minute chat.
“Tell me something”, he posed a question, “why does USA want to attack other nations around the globe?” Without awaiting my point of view on this weighty matter, he continued, “Simple, because USA wants to hoist its flag on these nations. But here we are, in Mauritius, and the foreigners come from different parts of the globe to our temple, themselves. The kumkum symbol I apply on their foreheads is nothing but the flag of Hinduism on a foreigner. They understand the meaning when I tell them in their own language, go back pleased; some even carry kumkum back to their country and continue to apply it and even tell their friends about it. Is not that a great way to spread the message of Hinduism all over?”
We found his logic irrefutable, and his adherence to his cause of spreading the Hindu philosophy to the followers of other faiths touching. As we bade him good bye, we saw him get up once again to do the honours to yet another European tourist.
And yes, my wife did receive the traditional prasad of coconut and bananas from the chief priest which we relished on the way back from Ganga Talao!