The True Melting Pot

Imagine a place where Hindu shrines, Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques and Catholic Churches reside and actually thrive next to one another.

Imagine a place where practitioners of these religions celebrate not only their holy days but the holy days of the other religions (and why not, when those days are national holidays?).

This is Mauritius. Here, on this tiny island nation of 1.2 million people, out in the middle of the Indian Ocean, there is more of model for the proverbial melting pot than any place I have visited in my travels.

For example, this weekend was Maya Shivaratri.

In honor of the god Shiva, Hindus all over the world chant prayers, fast, meditate and promote “overcoming darkness and ignorance” in life and the world.”

Could there be a more worthy cause?

Hindu pilgrims carrying a Kanwar on their long walk to the holy lake in Mauritius.
Hindu pilgrims carrying a Kanwar in Mauritius.

In Mauritius, Shiva is honored by a pilgrimage to a holy lake in the middle of the island. Some 250,000 to 400,000 people walk for days. It’s a tiny island, about the size of Maui, but this still could mean a 70-kilometer (42-mile) hike.

Apparently it all began in 1899, when a Hindu monk had a vision that water from the sacred Ganges River in India was bubbling up in the Mauritian lake. He traveled for days through mosquito-infested, mountainous terrain to find the place.

This began the annual tradition of the pilgrimage.

Just to make things interesting, pilgrims began carrying Kanwars; these are like parade floats you might see in a Fourth of July parade in the States, except these are actually carried on the backs of the pilgrims. They vary in size from one-person kanwars to massive structures carried by six or even eight (usually) young, able-bodied men.

Did I mention they are doing all this under a blazing tropical sun, 60-percent humidity and 90-degree F (32C) heat?

It’s become something of a competition to build the biggest and boldest. They are adorned with statues of the god Shiva, colorful flowers and beads and other decorations. Some are so tall, they need advance men with poles to hold up utility wires that cross the street.

They spend months building these things.

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Depending on where you live, the walk to the Hindu holy lake in Grand Bassin can take hours, even days.

The non-Hindi residents of Mauritius have some planning to do themselves. If one-third of your country is on the streets carrying massive floats for days and you need to be somewhere in a country that is already burdened with what seems like perpetual traffic jams, you’d had better be strategic about your travels.

And yet, if you are stuck in traffic because of the festival, hey, you’ve got a parade right outside your car window to enjoy.

Bigger bang for the buck

The Chinese descendants in Mauritius might be the smallest ethnic group, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make some noise on their big day.

In fact, I believe it is safe to say you have not experienced Chinese New Year’s until you have done so here. The Chinese — who speak French Creole and mostly practice a seamless syncretic blend of Catholicism and Buddhism — number about 30,000 or so total of 1.2 million Mauritians (the majority are of Indian descent, then of African).

Things kick into gear the week before with a thorough cleaning of one’s home. It is also customary before the New Year to pay respect to one’s ancestors. At the head of the crypt or gravestone in the cemetery, a small ceremony is performed with a cluster of incense sticks. A silent prayer is said, and then one bows an odd number of times (the gods favor non-even integers).

New Year’s Eve day starts with a bang, literally. Firecrackers — which are, of course, one of many Chinese inventions — are set off to ward off evil spirits. There is also a small ceremony to thank the deities for one’s good fortune for the past year. This includes offering food — always in odd numbers — for them to enjoy. Incense is lit and held as one bows. If the gods are not hungry on that particular day, well, then, voila, you have a ready-made feast to consume.

Throughout the day in the Chinese suburbs of Port Louis, the capital and only bonafide city on the island, the pop-pop-popping of “crackers” continues. Wafts of gunpowder fill the hot and humid air.

(Mauritius lies 20 or so degrees below the equator, so it’s summertime from December through March.)

Celebrating continues through the night into the next day. (The timing of the firecrackers, by the way, is not necessarily random. Buddhist nuns are at the ready to provide the hours most beneficial to bring good fortune. They do this for a donation, of course.)

Whether you managed to sleep through what sounds like a war zone or not, there will be Catholic Mass to attend at 9 a.m. sharp on New Year’s Day. And later in the day, there will be a dinner or meal. It will be served on a red table cloth (red is good luck). Family and friends gather and bid one another Bonne Anee and then the fun begins with an exchange of little red envelopes, known as tǎo hóngbāo. The envelopes contain money. You might end up with the same amount of money you have doled out, but, as the saying goes, it’s the thought that counts.

The Muslims might be quieter in their celebration of Eid-al-Fitr in June, which ends a month of fasting during Ramadan. But they are audibly present throughout the year, as Muslim prayers are broadcast over loudspeakers in many areas of the country.

Altogether, there are 15 national holidays in Mauritius. If you are planning on visiting this idyllic country (which Mark Twain said was used as the model for heaven), you might consider looking at the calendar of holidays and plan your visit around one of these events as a way to truly soak up this unique culture.