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Inside the largest Hindu celebration in Africa
CNN —  

Every year on the tiny island of Mauritius a great pilgrimage occurs. Thousands of Hindus make the rugged journey to a volcanic crater that houses the Ganga Talao, a lake raised up high above the Indian Ocean, for a touch of divinity.

Holy water

There are few similarities between the Ganges and Ganga Talao at first glance. One is a vast river coursing through South Asia, the other a placid lake. For Hindus however, the link that binds the two bodies of water is strong; spiritual and essential.

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In 1887 a priest claimed to see the waters of Ganga Talao flowing from the goddess Ganga in a dream – the same goddess who personifies the holy waters of the Ganges. Word of this revelation spread, transforming Ganga Talao. A simple lake no more, it was now the embodiment of a Hindu god, connected directly to the mighty Ganges situated nearly 4,000 miles away.

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Ever since worshipers have journeyed to the sacred lake, a cultural touchstone for the island’s Indian emigrants and a link to their South Asian past. Today it sits at the heart of the island’s most important Hindu festival, Maha Shivaratri.

Creating a home from home

To understand the celebration’s significance is to understand the difficult history of Mauritius’ Indian community. The island’s Hindus are the descendants of half a million indentured laborers, subjects of the British Empire brought to Mauritius in the nineteen century with the promise of a better life. However the life that awaited them was far from that.

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Disease was rife aboard the vessels crossing the Indian Ocean, with cholera, smallpox, malaria and yellow fever claiming lives at sea or on numerous quarantine islands at the doorstep of Mauritius. Those who made it to the mainland worked in the sugar cane fields in tough conditions. It was not slavery, but it far from a normal working environment.

“When they came they brought very (few) material possessions,” explains Sarita Boodhoo, who has fought to preserve the traditions of her forefathers. “What they brought in their heart, in their throat, in their psyche was that way of living of thousands of years.”

Central to their way of living was their religion. The revelation that Ganga Talao was linked to the Ganges allowed the Hindus of Mauritius to bathe in sacred waters once more.

“The water is pure,” says Sateesh Dayal, head priest at one of the many temples at the water’s edge. “It’s pure (and) it’s divine.”

Maha Shivaratri celebrates the god Shiva, one of Hinduism’s three major deities, the creator and the destroyer. Pilgrims carry hand-made “kanwars” – shrines dedicated to Shiva – to Ganga Talao, and once they find a place at the water’s edge, they perform their own private ceremonies with offerings of fruit, incense and fire.

“When they do their prayer with some water they are purified,” Dayal explains. “While (they are) pouring the water, the energy that Shiva has, that energy is transferred to you.”

For people who cannot make the pilgrimage, those at the lake will bottle up the water and return it to their friends and families. It’s a chance for everyone to pray for forgiveness and feel the touch of the sacred liquid.

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“I must go for all my family, my son, for the people in my village,” says worshiper Raguv Mahadeo. “(It) is a spiritual place. We go there, we have some stresses. We finish that (stress) when we go there. All the stress, it goes.”