Mauritius 5: Grand Bassin or Ganga Talao

September 12, 2008

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.

Shiva Temple at Ganga Talao

Shiva Temple at Ganga Talao

Shiva statue across the Talao

Shiva statue across the Talao

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.

Dayal-ji's logic was cogent


“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?”

Europeans at Shiva Temple

Europeans at Shiva Temple

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!

A close-up

Shiva statue: A close-up

Some Lessons from Baba 3: What I have Learnt

June 29, 2008

What I have learnt:

Sometime in 1980 when I had just joined my engineering college I paid a visit to him over a weekend. I was studying at Varanasi which is just a few hours away from my nanihal. Those days Baba was very seriously into Bhagwan Rajneesh’ books. (Rajneesh was yet to call himself Osho then.) I made a flippant remark, typical of a teenager I then was, on Baba’s declining reading tastes. “You are reading Rajneesh,” I said in an mocking tone! Baba was initially angry, and then he controlled himself and told me that if only the world was wise enough to delink Rajneesh the man and Rajneesh the philosopher, we could all benefit from his writings. He said, “The world thinks that they know what Rajneesh stands for going merely by the scandalous newspapers reports on him. Why do not people read a book or two and see for themselves what Rajneesh actually writes about?” Quite a daring statement to come from someone who was so steeped in Sanskrit scriptures. He read some parts of the book he was reading to prove to me how sensible Rajneesh was.


I then asked him if it was possible to know the future. He was contemptuous of claims of people who claimed to tell the future. He said that while it may be possible to talk about the past, it is impossible to tell the future. Past leaves some vibrations behind and there are some who are sensitive enough to read the vibrations to figure out what happened earlier. But future, he said, no way! And this from a pandit who spent a lifetime casting horoscopes!


In the same visit, I discussed with him some of my basic doubts on Hindu religion. I still remember his answer to my question on what is a Hindu. I was mentally prepared for a lengthy chat on the religion and its intricacies. But his quick and simple answer took me aback. His pithy answer was, “Jo hinsa ko dooshit samajhta hai, woh Hindu hai.” He who considers violence impure (or wrong) is a Hindu. The brevity and the startling simplicity of this definition of a Hindu has stayed with me nearly three decades now. Baba’s distillation of years of reading, introspection and meditation.


I have stayed away from temples and pujas and have been an avid non-vegeterian as well. While me being a non-vegetarian was not an issue with my my mother, it would trouble her no end that I would refuse to accompany her to temples. Baba had come to Jamshedpur to participate in my sister’s wedding, his only trip to Jamshedpur. She complained to him regarding this and asked him to counsel me. I was hovering around and was bracing myself for a harangue from this venerable pandit regarding the virtues of visiting a temple.


Baba turned towards me and asked me, “Do you love and respect your mother?”

“Of course I love and respect my mother.” I murmured. There it comes, the long speech, I wearily thought to myself. 

Baba turned towards mai. “See, Santosh says he loves you and respects you. Do you agree?”

“Yes”, said mai, anticipating Baba’s wise words to now get me to the right path.

What Baba said next surprised both of us. “Ai Kamala (mai‘s name). If your son loves you and respects you, he need not necessarily visit the temple. Is it not enough that your son reveres you? Love and respect is a form of worship and all Gods are served if the mother is worshipped.


That was my last meeting with Baba.


Some Lessons from Baba 2: What I have seen

June 29, 2008

I used to visit Baba along with my family every year in the summer holidays when I was a kid. My memories of him from those days was of a rather serious man, given to lots of reading and specializing in matters spiritual and philosophical. He had a spartan lifestyle, with not too many interests but for reading and ayurveda. Always clad in a dhoti and a sacred thread; a kurta as well when the occassion demanded it. He is the only person I have ever seen in real life wearing “khadaoon“. Now, when I visualize baba, I see him prone on his khatia, clasping a book, and reading away for hours. Vedanta, spiritual literature and sometimes ayurveda were his topics of interest. His wore his trademark brown-framed spectacles with thick bifocal lenses on his nose, sometime held together by a string in case the spectacle-arm broke away. His room which was at the entrance to the house was a simple affair; a khatia, a steel trunk, a shelf full of ayurvedic herbs and medicines and racks and racks of books. Some books wrapped in lengths of red cotton cloth, while the others piled up on the racks in a way where only Baba could recognize the books and where they were kept. Common to all books was the layer of dust which would emanate from the fields nearby.


Baba would not only read the books many times, he would also make his own annotations and commentary on the margins of the pages. His way of differentiating his multiple commentaries on different readings of the books was by using different coloured ball-point pens. So it was pretty common to find margins covered with his steady handwriting in blue, red and green. Sometimes in pencil too. I am pretty sure that if these notes from each book were compiled this could form a great treatise on the book!


Baba, I was told, was a renowned person across the region, a Sanskrit scholar of note. In the evenings his friends would arrive and they would discuss till dusk various spiritual and philosophical matters. I was a kid thise days I could not follow the discussions except that it all sounded very serious and erudite.


Sometimes I would accompany Baba to the wedding ceremonies he used to preside over. I remember that he knew all the shlokas by heart.He rarely needed to dip into the text he would hold in his hands except when he needed to catch his breath in the middle of a long shloka! Pandits have this itch to prove their superiority over others of their ilk by finding some fault in their pronounciation of the shloka (there is a certain rigour to vedic pronounciations) or their adherence to the sequence of rituals. God forbid if someone tried to question Baba. Baba would give the mischief-making pandit a withering look, complete the shloka he was reciting, pause and break into long chastising speech in fluent Sanskrit (which I could not follow a bit) and eventually convince the other what a silly, uneducated pandit he was, thoroughly incapable of doing his job! That would end any further questioning.


There was a custom in the villages in our community during the weddings when the baraat arrived at the bride’s place. The baraatis would sit in a large pandal on mattresses spread on the ground. The bride’s family and guests would sit across the pandal, the two sides facing each other. Then would begin the test of knowledge. Someone from the bride’s side would fire a question and the groom’s side was required to answer the question. A bit like gunshots fired in the air in most parts of North India. In our community the guns would be replaced by words in the Brahaminical tradition. The question could be on any topic, but was always a serious one designed to assess the intellectual level of the baraatis. (My father tells of a baraat he had attended where the question was asked in English by some upstart from the bride’s family and my father was the only one among the groom’s side who understood and spoke English. He carried the day for groom’s side!). I remember a baraat I had accompanied my Baba to. No sooner had the baraatis settled down a person from the other side stood up and asked a long-winded and involved question on Sanatan Dharma. There was a hush of silence among the baraatis till Baba arose and spoke in Sanskrit for maybe half-an-hour on the intricacies of the Sanatan Dharma quoting from memory from various scriptures. No further question followed!


Baba’s colloquial Hindi, though, was a curious mix of Sanskrit and Bhojpuri, leaning more towards the former! I remember an incident when someone had come to consult Baba for some ailments he was suffering. Baba admonished him for neglecting his health by saying, “Prakriti key niyam ke atikraman hoi, ta kasht na hoi?” (If you break the nature’s laws then you will have to suffer). And then he handed his guest the necessary herbs and a strict instruction on dietary and life-style discipline.


So that was Baba for me, a highly knowledgeable scholar, a stern upholder of Brahminical traditions and values, a pandit much respected (and feared) by his peers. Just the right example of a strict upholder of Hindu religion. I would start seeing him in a slightly different light when I grew up a bit more!


To be concluded…

Some Lessons from Baba 1: What I have Heard

June 29, 2008

Baba, my mother’s father, was a frail, short person.He resided in his village most of his life, scarcely moving out to visit his offsprings spread across Bihar. He was a Sanskrit teacher in a school near his village . He was also an officiating priest (purohit) for marriages and upanayan-sanskar ceremonies of his yajmaans. He lived most of his later years as a widower, nani, his wife having expired many years earlier. Baba died of old age some 25 years ago.


What I have heard:

Baba was born at the turn of the twentieth century. His father was a pandit of modest means who earned his livelihood by conducting pujas and ceremonies for his yajmaans in the nearby areas. The bubonic plague which swept parts of UP and Bihar in the early 1900’s left Baba orphan. He was just 10 or 12 years old. Tales are told in the family about how Baba’s elder sister, who was probably widowed herself in the plague, took him around the villages introducing him to the yajmaans of their father and requesting for the pandit-yajmaan relationship to be continued now with Baba “succeeding” his deceased father. This enabled the remainder of the family to be supported in those difficult years.


However, Baba’s love for study took him to Kolkata to study Sanskrit. Apparently, those days, there were no Hindi texts for Sanskrit works. Bengali translations were available and Baba taught himself Bengali. He completed successive degrees, Prathama, Madhyama, Shastri, leading on to the final one, Sahityacharya. An acharya in Sahitya, Baba studied Sanskrit Literature. This degree is an equivalent of M.A. I am told.


Overtime Baba married, had five children, 3 sons (all went on to graduate in Sanskrit) and two daughters. The eldest of all his offsprings is mai, my mother. He went on to get some more yajmaans in addition to what he “inherited” from his father. One of his yajamaans who was some kind of a landlord in Bettiah, a few hundred kilometers away from Baba’s village, wanted Baba to join him there, but he would not leave his village. He took up a Sanskrit teacher’s job in a school nearby and continued to teach, do pujas and of course, read. There is an interesting story told about this same yajmaan who was a extremely distraught once as someone worker in his estate had died due to an accident. When Baba heard of this, he went to meet the yajmaan who told him how guilty he felt about this death. At this point, the story goes, Baba impulsively took the landlord’s hands in his and gripped it firmly. Baba said, “Do not worry anymore, I hereby take all your guilt.” And that immediately eased the tension the yajmaan was having.