The initiative of coming up with a Master Plan for the Ganga Talao taken this week by the President of the Maha Shivaratri Task Force, Hon Pravind Jugnauth, Minister of Technology, Communication and Innovation, is highly commendable. As Hon. Jugnauth himself mentions, this is in a bid to avoid any “piecemeal” development at the sacred lake. The aim of the government is to make of Mauritius a global pilgrimage destination as mentioned in the Government Programme earlier this year.
The Ganga Talao as a world pilgrimage centre could be submitted to UNESCO by the government to be inscribed as a World Heritage Site of Humanity in the years to come given the aura of spiritual dimension it has gathered over a century.
Ever since Pandit Jhummun Gossagne and his band of pilgrims, inspired by a dream to search for “Ganga”, reached the Grand Bassin in 1897 by making a way amidst forests and thick thorny vegetation, the volcanic crater lake in Savanne District in South Central Mauritius has assumed a symbolical value for Hindus. Thousands of pilgrims have since been travelling to the sacred lake annually to collect gangajal for their annual abhishekh on the Shivling of their respective shivalayas in their hometowns or villages.
In the old colonial days some temples of sorts were built on the edge of the lake amidst much administrative controversy. This did not deter the ardent and adamant indentured immigrants from journeying to the lake for their annual Maha Shivaratri festival. It is thus that over decades of the great trek, the lake has assumed an aura of sanctity and sacredness.
For many years, in the middle of the last century, the Jai Hind Samaj headed by Manilal Ramdin and other volunteers were organising the four/five-day functions at the time of pilgrimage by providing various facilities to the pilgrims. The Jai Hind Samaj would provide food and hot tea to the pilgrims. The job of the police was very trying then as it is now. For three days and nights the policemen slept in camps pitched in the vicinity and worked in fog, rain and mud. Both roads leading to Grand Bassin were almost impracticable for vehicles.
The Move of Shri Ramlallah
In the 1950s, the Public Works Department (PWD) made it possible for easy access to the lake by car. Since 1953, the Sugar Industry Labour Welfare Fund (SILWF) Committee provided shelter to pilgrims by erecting huge tarpaulin tents and lighting as well. Entertainment was provided in the form of bhajans and kirtans by a host of singers and musicians coming from all over the island. This has now been taken over by institutionalised organisations. Maybe the practice of giving a voice to the many local singers and bhajniks at the Ganga Talao should be renewed to allow for more creativity and participation by the community.
As shelter for rest to pilgrims and other amenities was badly needed, Shri Beekrumsing Ramlallah MLA, then President of the Hindu Maha Sabha contacted and proposed to the then Minister of Agriculture and Forests, Hon Satcam Boolell a solid plan for the acquisition of Crown Land for erection of a hall and facilities as well as the construction of good roads.
Hon Satcam Boolell was very receptive to the proposal of Beekrumsing Ramlallah and he appointed a committee to look into the matter. It was chaired by E. Edgerly, Conservator of Forests, and included J. Jefferies Director of Mauritius Government Tourists Office, Mr Rottoo, Manager of SILWF Committee, Hon R. Balgobin, Executive President of the Sanatan Dharma Temples Federation, Mr Yudhisthir Ruhee, President of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha and Shri Ramlallah himself.
Thus it was that in 1961 the government gave recognition to the proposal of Beekrumsing Ramlallah and the several recommendations made by this Committee. One of these recommendations was “that provision be made for setting aside of an adequate area (140 Arpents) of the land adjoining the lake for lease to a representative Hindu Religious Body having adequate private funds for the purpose of erecting suitable buildings, temples and shrines intended for the use of pilgrims.”
Other clauses included the improvement of public roads giving access to the lake, including the provision of adequate car parking facilities for motor vehicles during festival periods.
It was the Hindu Maha Sabha, whose President later was Hon Basant Rai and Minister of Social Security and who was also secretary of the Mauritius Sanatan Dharma Temples Federation, that became greatly associated with the Ganga Talao. During the four days and nights of the pilgrimage, Hon Basant Rai would “pitch tent” at Grand Bassin. The lake known as the Pari Talao in popular myth, came to be known as Ganga Talao when sacred water from the Ganges was added to it in the 1970s thanks to the initiative of Hon Basant Rai. The latter’s association with the Ganga Talao was such that he was known fondly as “Minis Grand Bassin”.
By way of tradition over more than 100 years, Grand Bassin has now become an uncontested place of pilgrimage for the Hindus not only of Mauritius but in the world as well as an attractive tourist destination.
Preservation of Ecosystem of Grand Bassin Environment
In this context, therefore, the decision of the government to look for architectural and planning help from India is most welcome. However, we should bear in mind that it is imperative to preserve the ecosystem and environmental beauty and lush vegetation surrounding the lake.
Over the years, several organisations have asked for and obtained lease by succeeding governments to erect temples or gigantic statues such as the Mangal Mahadev. The statue of Durga is still in construction.
The current Task Force will certainly take into consideration that very little pristine vegetation is left now in Mauritius. It is our duty to preserve and promote our environment. In addition to the Grand Bassin crater lake, there are several other craters in the vicinity such as Trou Raoul, Trou Kanaka and Trou du Madame Bouchet. The original natural endemic vegetation is almost gone and reafforestation has been carefully carried out to preserve and maintain the ecosystem.
The subsoil and topsoil are very fragile. We should have adequate tests of the soil profile as well as geological and geotechnical surveys before further erection of more concrete structures. We should not crowd the sacred lake environment with more and more concrete jungles whether they be shrines or prayer places. Look at what has happened to the shore of the lake littered with all sorts of statues and erection of un-anaesthetic platforms. Too much of construction and cement work will not contribute to the sustainability of nature. Let us beware the wrath of nature and God. Let us take the case of the Verdun-Terre Rouge Road and Port-Louis Pailles Ring Road. We should also bear in mind that environment is closely associated with climate change. The Savanne vegetation and topography contribute to the rain system, which should lead us to take into consideration our water and forest reserves.
How many more temples are we going – do we need – to construct? We should be careful not to damage the existing natural environment. It should be left as an open meditation space where people can breathe freely and communicate with Nature.
As for Kanwars, the President of the Task Force is certainly giving the right signal. It is high time that socio-cultural organisations take heed. A Kanwar is meant to be carried on the shoulder, not on roulette or wheels. Lately some people in unprecedented ego trips have encouraged the youth to build oversized Kanwars to carry their Gangajal – isn’t it a truism now that ‘small is beautiful’?
Some of our young people are no doubt very imaginative and give vent to their imagination in constructing beautifully decorated kanwars. However, they should be respectful and mindful of others and avoid obstructing unnecessarily roads or invite dangers of electrocution and so on. Religiosity or spirituality should be, besides outer and material manifestations, more of an inner exploration. A small beautifully erected kanwar carried on the shoulder is more than adequate. I am happy that both Hon Pravind Jugnauth and Somduth Dulthumun, President of MSDTF, have realised the importance of urging pilgrims to carry small kanwars. For the next year, more incentives can be given by the MSDTF in this direction, much ahead of the Maha Shivaratri festival.
Another important element is that many youngsters who participate in the long trek should take along and make use of bhajan and kirtan booklets and musical instruments so that instead of playing cards or smoking, their mind is focused in more spiritual and divine engagements during that period. They should conduct themselves with more discipline and restraint, which help to awaken the underlying spiritual dynamic hidden in each human being.
All this requires months of training and preparation by temple custodians. We need a overhauling and shift in our whole concept of cultural and religious practices. We should also take guard that in a bid to attract tourists we should not artificialise our culture and dilute our spiritual aspirations. Pilgrims should also be briefed on proper dress codes and behavior as well as be guided on the sacredness of the moment.
A word of caution however. A Task Force to look after the infrastructural requirements of Ganga Talao is a step in the right direction with the view to enhancing the spiritual and environmental cachet of Grand Bassin. But it should be clear about remaining within its mandate: the management, running and the specificities of Ganga Talao should rest with the concerned socio-cultural organisations. In the same breath, may we add that the latter organisations must on their part revisit their own brief as regards the celebrations in particular of Maha Shivratri so as to pitch them to the higher level aimed at by the Task Force.
* Published in print edition on 27 February 2015