Reflexions on Maha Shivaratree
— Ramesh Beeharry
Like every year, the Maha Shivaratree festival was celebrated again with great fervour this year (12 Feb 10) in Mauritius. Some half a million pilgrims, many on foot, converged on Ganga Talao (GT), in spite of the heavy rains that lashed the island throughout the period.
Having made the journey back to their towns and villages the previous day and performed the Jal Abhishek on the morning of the 12th, many pilgrims and their families stayed on at the local temples to participate in the Char Pahar ke Puja which, as the name implies, is performed four times between sunset on the day and sunrise the next day. As I understand it, this in fact is the essence of Maha Shivaratree, the great night of Lord Shiva.
That the Hindus are great believers in the magnanimity of Shivji to deliver us from the evil that surrounds us all is beyond doubt. Going to GT is no ordinary day out. The faithful has to keep Vrat for anything between one to four weeks, forsaking all worldly pleasures, consuming only unsalted vegetarian food and sleeping on the floor on nothing more than a mat. Those who go on foot usually build a Kanwar to take along, either individually or in groups. The preparations take about a month. As they walk along, many chant the praises of Shivji whose images seem to pop up in the unlikeliest of places, truly making Him the omnipresent Being.
From the north to the south, from the east to the west, an army of men, women and children keep the pilgrims fed and watered at various camps throughout the whole week. Service to the pilgrim is regarded as service to the great Shiva himself. No expense is spared to ensure that the pilgrimage takes place with the least hitch and, by the time the last pilgrim passes by, the volunteers who man the reception centres are exhausted, but elated to have been of service. Even some ministers of state can be seen helping with the smooth running of the proceedings. This year was no exception.
So much for the positive but, like most things, there is a flip side. In fact, several flip sides in this case.
1. Discipline. Every year, the leaders of the various Sabhas exhort devotees to build small Kanwars, which they can and should normally carry on their shoulders. But every year, their entreaty seems to fall on deaf ears. This year was no exception. Kanwars, the size of a small apartment, were to be seen everywhere — some being dragged along dirty roads on wheels, like a common market barrow. So undignified, if not downright sacrilegious.
On this period of sacrifice and abstinence, some of the younger pilgrims were seen consuming beer by the roadside. Not exactly the best image to portray to all those overseas devotees who had made a special trip to our shores just to partake in the fervour of Maha Shivaratree.
2. Safety. Normally, this is the responsibility of all road users — pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike. But, this basic of Highway Code seems to take a back seat with the Kanwarthis. To make matters worse, the authorities tell them to use the left side of the road, thus shifting all the onus (of their safety) onto the motorist.
At the same time, those with the ridiculous structures referred to block more than half the road with them, causing mayhem with the traffic.
All told, there were half a dozen accidents reported in the press this year. Given the indiscipline that reigned throughout the week, it’s a miracle that this number was not greater and the casualties not more serious.
3. Environment. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, we are told. But, looking at the trail of rubbish left behind in the wake of the pilgrims, one wonders if some of them have ever heard of this saying. In several places, many a gigantic Kanwar — broken under its own weight — had just been abandoned like a common card box.
Even as one drove to GT in the afternoon of 12 Feb 10, one could spot several gangs of men in green bent over by the roadside, gathering bagfuls of litter. The situation on the verge of the sacred lake was scarce better. Plastic wrappings were strewn around all over the place and remnants of offerings were left on the concrete puja podiums for the dustmen to clear up.
4. Consideration. All my sacrifice is in vain if it impinges for one iota of a moment on the liberty of just one single man, goes an ancient Buddhist saying.
The pilgrims must remember that as they are going to and fro from GT, it must be business as usual for the vast majority of the population. Grown-ups have to get to work, children have to get to school and the sick have to attend hospital for their treatment. Even a temporary blockage in the traffic can cause a lot of inconvenience to so many by just a few. In some cases, it may literally be a matter of life and death – for instance, if there is delay in getting a sick person to a hospital. And, that person could well be a pilgrim’s colleague, friend or relative.
5. Lessons. There is no need for any magic formula. When, as a boy, I walked to GT, we carried a small Kanwar on our shoulders and the our wise, old group leader made sure we walked in a single file, mostly after sundown when normal traffic was at its least dense.
Just some thoughtful adaptation to the size of the Kanwars, a strict highway discipline and a better planned, more considerate walking/driving schedule would go a long way in helping to attenuate much of the inconvenience that are caused to third parties during this time every year.
It is to be hoped that, come next Maha Shivaratree, we would have learnt some lessons from the one that has just gone by and mend some of our ways. Besides the general public, I am sure this would greatly please Shivji.