Mauritius: Ganesha's Island Birthday

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Celebrating Ganesha’s Birthday:

Mauritius: Ganesha's Island BirthdaySivacharya Arunachallum (left) of the Goodlands Siva Soopramaniar Temple leads the day’s special worship with Siven Koothan (right) assisting

Mauritius: a land of sandy beaches, turquoise water, clean blue sky and breathtaking landscapes. This small country, located in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa, is a place where Hinduism, the majority religion, stands proudly, people are friendly and religious and every Hindu festival is a national celebration. Ganesha Chaturthi is the biggest festival here, attracting in particular thousands each year to the Spiritual Park, where the Rempart River meets the ocean, to worship the elephant-faced God on His birthday.

As of July 23, 2020, the day of the festival, the Covid-19 pandemic has barely touched us. Currently there are only two active cases on the island, both related to travel. Large crowds are once again allowed to gather without masks or social distancing.

I know parking spaces will be scarce, so I take a taxi for the 25-mile journey from home. For me, that’s a long trip—our island is just 40 miles north to south and 30 miles wide. There are many temples closer to home, but this is an opportunity for a mini-pilgrimage. Passing through our beautiful landscape of mountains, villages and sugarcane fields, I see dozens of temples celebrating the festival. Banners are hung on every roundabout, and every available wall is plastered with posters announcing the festival’s celebration by various associations and temples.

As I approach the park, I can start to feel the difference. Still a mile out, traffic has slowed to a crawl. One lane is completely dedicated for devotees to park their cars and walk to the site. All wear colorful traditional Hindu attire: women in saris and churidars; girls in lehengas; men and boys in kurta pajama outfits. Some shop along the way at the colorful stalls lining the road, where vendors are selling everything from puja offerings and souvenirs to hats and books—anything one can think of to buy at a fair. Everything is sparkling with tradition and festival.

In the small, secluded village of Pointe de Lascar, police are directing traffic at the final turn, on to the aptly-named Ganesha Lane. My taxi is allowed no farther. Loudspeakers bring me the priestly chanting of mantras as I walk the last 100 yards past more vendor stalls. Arriving devotees are buying fruits and other offerings to supplement their prayer platters; those departing after their darshan are buying things for their happy kids. It is around 9am; the earlier showers have stopped and the sun is out, making it a very fresh tropical morning.

The three-acre Spiritual Park, opened to the public in 1999, contains several shrines. The focus today is on the largest, a Kerala-style building housing an eight-foot-tall granite Panchamukha Ganapati, the five-faced form of Lord Ganesha. Conceived by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (founder of HINDUISM TODAY), the park is a branch of Saiva Siddhanta Church, Hawaii, USA.

The devotees’ loving effort is evident in their prayer platters. Handmade modakas (reputed to be Ganesha’s favorite sweet) along with fruits, flowers and the sacred doob grass surround the centerpiece of each platter, a small murti of Ganesha made of clay, sand, even raw tumeric. I ask one lady about hers. “Oh, I made it with the help of a YouTube video,” she said proudly. “It was tricky but still we managed. Isn’t it beautiful? We let it dry for a day and colored it with my kids’ watercolors. It’s the tradition here to make or buy a murti, pray to Him at home, then bring Him here. All the murtis are kept in front of the Panchamukha Ganesha during the prayer rituals. Then we carry our murtis in procession to the river for the immersion ceremony.”

This is indeed a park—a walled garden, really—with trees, benches, unspoiled nature, fruit trees and flowering plants. Birds sing in harmony despite humans everywhere. Even the small wooden bridges give one a feeling of nature. A salty breeze announces the nearby sea. A few people, fortunate enough to find a peaceful corner, are sitting in deep meditation. Others of all ages are in full festival mode with a broad smile on their face, greeting all who cross their path, praying, mingling, eating prasad, lighting lamps—a complete dose of the joyful spirit of the day.

The main Panchamukha Ganapati mandapam is nothing like the hurricane-proof concrete temple construction common in Mauritius. Built in the Kerala style, it is a large open-sided ornate wooden building with a blue tile roof. On the central platform stands a magnificently adorned eight-foot-tall black granite Panchmukha Ganapati. Thousands of devotees are seated around the mandapam, so I bow from a distance, still easily feeling the connection, the vibrations, the blessings.

Priests are performing fire worship and related rituals at a big havan kund in front of Panchamukha Ganapati. Tables hold the murtis brought by devotees. On the far side, devotees with musical instruments are conducting bhajan.

By Savita Tiwari, Mauritiu