Reflections Around Divali Celebrations in Mauritius

We all know that there is more to Divali than just gateaux patates, gateaux banane and thekoas – the standard preparations on that occasion that we grew up enjoying, at least in Hindi-Bhojpuri speaking homes. Likewise, there are also similar set gateaux variations amongst our co-religionists of other provincial origins in India such as Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra and so on.

However, things have moved on very far since the earlier times, as exchanges between Mauritius and India increased tremendously in the years following Indian Independence, especially with students going in large numbers to study in India either on Government of India scholarships or self-financed — and many coming back with Indian brides from the different regions of the country. Practically all the states of Bharat Mata have their representatives in this ‘little India beyond the seas,’ all suitably ‘Mauritianised,’ down to speaking the local Creole with ease.

Moving forward, commercial, diplomatic and more formal cultural interactions also brought in their lot of enrichment, and as a result Indian culture in Mauritius has gradually become infused with customs, practices and habits that had hitherto not been current fare locally, spanning all walks of life. For example, how many Indo-Mauritians used to eat paneer or phulkas made of wheat flour, or idli-dosa fifty years ago? Practically nil. And yet today, these food items have become part of the cuisine, regularly even if not daily, of most of us of Indian ancestry. And so, too, Divali mithais – whose variety has expanded to meet the expectations of a more discerning clientele that includes all Mauritians. The difference, however, is that whereas in India these are prepared with fresh milk, here it is powdered milk that is used. Further, there – at least in urban and semi-urban areas to the best of my knowledge – hardly any mithais are made at home, because there are so many brand mithai-walas in the commercial circuit that produce in bulk and of quality that it is almost futile to try and match them in one’s kitchen.

It is now commonplace to say that Divali is a fête de partage et de lumière, and indeed the custom of distribution of home-made mithais to friends and neighbours belonging to all communities continues. But nowadays, unlike in the days of our childhood, the sharing as in India begins before the actual day of Divali, because preparations start a few days before, and also mithais are available commercially which makes for convenience. Further, private transport facilities have made it easier to reach close relatives and friends living around the island, something which was practically impossible earlier.

This said, it is also a fact that it has taken some time for the country to wake up to the richness of cultural traditions which had till recent memory evoked only passing interest and at best curiosity. This new awareness has brought not only Divali, but also other festivals to the national level and hence are celebrated as ‘national festivals’, whose significance and symbolism are widely appreciated by all Mauritians. And so much the better as a means of fostering peace and unity, which the sharing and the gaiety bring about.

On the other hand, as we have recently commemorated the arrival of Indian Indentured Labour on the 2nd November, it is perhaps appropriate to remember too that they struggled under very harsh conditions of living and working. And what helped them to pull through was their courage in the face of adversity, which derived from the story of Ram Bhagavan and Sita Mata, found in the Ramcharitmanas which they had brought along. It was told and recited in the baithkas where our forefathers congregated after their arduous and long hours in the fields, and gave them hope that someday they too would overcome their adversity, in the same manner as through steadfastness and perseverance Bhagavan Shri Ram and Sita Mata had overcome their adversary after fourteen long years. And returned in triumph to their royal city of Ayodhya to the welcome, among other things, of rows (avali) of little earthenware lamps that were alight (deep) – hence Deepavali aka locally as Divali.

As we, their descendants, today live in relative material comfort, we must not take for granted our better situation and live our lives in ignorance of the difficult and painful, uphill road travelled to reach where we are now, that was based on values that gave our forefathers the strength to face and rise above their dire circumstances. As we light the diyas during Divali, we may perhaps care to pause and reflect on the some of these perennial values that our tradition has handed down to us, and that we have a duty not only to put into practice but to share with our fellow citizens, why, with the world at large in fact. They are:

•       Quest for peace, om shanti shanti – and non-violence, ahimsa paramo dharma

•       Pursuit of a cooperative way of life – om sahanau bhavatu, sahanau bhunaktu…

•       Looking at the world as one family – vasudhaiva kutumbakam

•       Tolerance for a diversity of views – ekam sat vipra bahuda vedanti

•       Doing good to others – paropkaraya idam shariram

•       Compassion for the poor and oppressed – je ka ranjale ganjale tyasi jo manhe aapule (Tukaram)

•       Love for nature

•       Performance of one’s duty selflessly

•       Equanimity in the face of success or failure, happiness and sorrow

•       Spirit of sacrifice for family and society

•       Respect for parents and elders

It is important to appreciate and understand that these values are premised on the assertion central to Hindu tradition that there is something beyond the physical body and mind which is pure, infinite, and eternal, called the Atman. Just as we celebrate the birth of our physical being, Divali is the celebration of this Inner Light, in particular the knowing of which outshines all darkness (removes all obstacles and dispels all ignorance), awakening the individual to one’s true nature, not as the body, but as the unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality. With the realization of the Atman comes universal compassion, love, and the awareness of the oneness of all things and hence ‘Looking at the world as one family – vasudhaiva kutumbakam’.

The external expression of this enlightened awareness are the various celebrations associated with Divali, through worship, lights, flowers, festive fireworks and sharing of sweets as outlined above. While the story behind Divali varies from region to region, the common essence is to rejoice in the inner light in the individual (Atman) which is as one with the underlying reality of all that exists (Brahman).

Divali Abhinandan and Shubh Kamna to all.

  • Published in print edition on 6 November 2015

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