Sunday, 5 March 2017

A Land From Which Heaven was Copied

It was Mark Twain who said, “Mauritius was first made and then heaven; heaven was copied from Mauritius.”

During the last week of January, 2017, Daughter II arranged a get-together on the occasion of the 10th Anniversary of her wedding. The location was Mauritius. We flew from Bhubaneswar and they – she, the son-in-law, his sister and the granddaughter – flew from Singapore. We met at Sir Seewoosagur  Ramgoolam Airport at Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius.

Mauritius, with an area of 2040 sq KMs, is located in the Indian Ocean and is about 2000 KM off the south-east coast of the African Continent to which it belongs. The distance from Kanyakumari, the southernmost part of India, is 3842 KM. The distance from Chennai to Mauritius is 4452 KM.

Mauritius was considered as a tax haven for Indians trying to evade taxes. In 2016, the two countries signed an agreement to prevent this.

The country was uninhabited till 1505 when the Portuguese came. In 1683 the Dutch occupied it. They abandoned it in 1710 and the French came in 1715. Then the British came and won in the power-struggle with France in 1810 but the French language stayed on. The British substituted the slave labour from Africa with indentured labour from India, in a form of a contract that bound them to forced labour for a fixed term. Sugarcane, a crop native to India, brought indentured Hindus from India.

Hinduism came to Mauritius when Indians were brought as indentured labourers to colonial French and later, in much larger number, to British sugar plantations. The migrants came primarily from Bihar, U.P., Odisha and Tamil Nadu.

In a recent article, i read that one Jagannath, from Jajpur in Odisha, had gone as an indentured labourer to Mauritius in the 1860s. At the time of his death, he had handed over to his grandson Ramrup, a manuscript, an epic on Krishna Lila, written in Odia. Ramrup learnt Odia from this, located his ancestral village and visited it.

Mauritius gained independence from the British in 1968 and became a Republic in 1992. Seewoosagur (later knighted as 'Sir') Ramgoolam had led the freedom struggle. His father had come from Harigaon, a village in Bihar, as an indentured labourer in 1896. Seewoosagur served as the first Chief Minister and later, from 1968 to 1982, as the Prime Minister. He was the first Prime Minister of Mauritius and is fondly referred to as ‘Chacha’ Ramgoolam (Remember '√áhacha' Nehru?). Later, he was the 6th Governor General of the country. His son, Navin Ramgoolam was Prime Minister for 3 terms.

I remember having read in the newspapers that either Seewoosagur or his son, when he was on a visit to India as the country’s Prime Minister, visited his ancestral village in Bihar.

The Constitution of Mauritius, written in English, does not make any language as the official language, although English and French are generally accepted as official. Creole, derived mainly from French, is the mother tongue of most people. Most people are fluent in both English and French. They tend to switch languages according to the situation.  French and English are favoured in education and professions while Asian languages are mainly in music, religion and cultural activities. Bhojpuri, a dialect of Bihar, is also widely spoken. The other languages spoken are Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu.

Mauritius is a secular state. Hinduism has the largest following (51.9%) among the people, followed by Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. The country has the highest percentage of Hindus in Africa and the third highest percentage in the world after Nepal and India.

I had the first glimpse of Hinduism in Mauritius when the maid came on the first morning to clean the house. I noticed that she was wearing a rather long mark of vermilion in the parting of her hair, as is done by married Hindu women in India. She spoke Hindi and to my query, replied that she was indeed a Hindu and that her forefathers had come from India.
As we drove out of the airport, we were struck by the lush greenery all around. Mauritius has varied flora and fauna. 

Sugarcane is the main crop. I saw that a ten-rupee coin of Mauritius depicts a field of sugar cane crops on its obverse side.

A 10-rupee Coin of Mauritius

A lot of Ravenala trees, also known as Traveller’s Palm or Traveller’s trees grow abundantly in the wild in Mauritius. These reminded me about this plant in my own garden which is grown as a decorative plant.

The Traveller’s Palm in my garden

Outside a restaurant where we had lunch once, i saw some small nests at the tips of long bamboo plants. The waiter explained that those were bats’ nests.

The Daughter & Co. had booked an apartment in Albion. It is a picturesque village adjacent to a beach. On the first day in the afternoon, and 2 more times later, we visited this magnificent beach. 

The Albion Beach

Our next visit was to the enchanting Chamarel Waterfalls. Water cascades down from a height of 272 feet (83 metres), creating a magnificent view. A plaque nearby compares its height to that of the Statue of Liberty in USA with a height of 305 feet. This plaque states that the height of the waterfalls is 100 metres.

The Plaque

Formed by the River St. Denis, the waterfalls of Chamarel (Cascade Chamarel) are a testimony to the volcanic activity that lasted for a million years. The waterfalls are surrounded by lush vegetation of the Black River Gorges. One can have a vivid view of the waterfalls from both a lower and an upper viewpoint from the Black River National Park. The St. Denis river flows through fields, gorges and green spaces seawards and makes for a splendid view.

Chamarel Waterfalls

We also visited Tamrind Falls (or 7 Cascades) and Alexandra Falls which are a part of Black River Gorges as well as Gadan Water Falls.

Then we went to see the Seven-coloured Earths in Chamarel.

The Seven-coloured Earths

Wikipedia states:

The Seven Coloured Earths are a geological formation in the Chamarel plain of the Rivière Noire District in south-western Mauritius. It is a relatively small area of sand dunes comprising sand of seven distinct colours (approximately red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple and yellow). The main feature of the place is that since these differently coloured sands spontaneously settle in different layers, dunes acquire a surrealistic, striped colouring. This phenomenon can also be observed, on a smaller scale, if one takes a handful of sands of different colours and mixes them together, as they will eventually separate into a layered spectrum. Another interesting feature of Chamarel's Coloured Earths is that the dunes seemingly never erode, in spite of Mauritius' torrential tropical rains.

Then we visited La Vanille Nature Park which houses the largest group of captive-bred giant Aldabra tortoise in the world. There are more than 1000 tortoises. 

Mating Tortoises

Also, there are 2000 captive-bred Nile crocodiles and a variety of other animals including monkeys, lizards, bats, deer, geckos, eels, wild boars etc. Also, it has a collection of more than 23,000 specimens of insects.   

Grand Bassin or Ganga Talao is a sacred lake, which is about 1800 feet above sea level. The crater-lake is one of the most important Hindu pilgrimage sites outside of India. There is a legend that a devotee had brought water from the sacred river Ganga in India and had added it to the water of the lake, making it holy and giving it the name ‘Ganga Talao’ (Ganga pond). 

In 1897 Shri Jhummon Giri Gosagne Napal, a ‘pujari’ (priest) of Triolet together with a 'pujari' priest from Goodlands Sri Mohanparsad saw in a dream the water of the lake of Grand Bassin springing from the ‘Jahnvi’, thus forming part of Ganga. The news of the dream spread rapidly and created quite a stir in the Hindu community. The following year, pilgrims trekked to Grand Bassin to collect its water to offer to Lord Shiva on the occasion of Maha Shivaratri. The lake was then known as the ‘Pari Talao’. In 1998 it was declared a "sacred lake". In 1972, some holy water from the Ganges River was mixed establishing a symbolic link with the sacred Indian River and the lake was renamed Ganga Talao. (Source: Wikipedia)

A huge statue of Lord Shiva called ‘Mangal Mahadev’ greets the visitors at the entrance. With a height of 108 feet (33 metres), it is the highest statue of Mauritius. It is a faithful copy of the Shiva statue in Surasagar lake at Vadodara in India.
‘Mangal Mahadev’ at Ganga Talao

Another statue ‘Devi Parvati’ as Durga Maa Bhavani, is under construction nearby.
Statue of ‘Devi Parvati’ under construction

There is a Shiva Temple in the area. There, i met a little devotee accompanied by a senior one.

 Two devotees, young and old

I saw a large Indian National Flag fluttering in the compound.
Indian National Flag in Shiva Temple, Ganga Talao, Mauritius

After a visit to Bois Cheri Tea Plantation, we visited Trou aux Cerfs. Also known as Murr's Volcano, it is a dormant volcano with a well-defined cone and crater. It is 605 m (1,985 ft.) high. The crater has been alternately described as 300 and 350 meters in diameter and is 80 meters deep. According to experts, the volcano is lying dormant but could become active at any time within the next thousand years.

Then we visited Grand Bay (Baie) beach. Grand Bay owes its popularity to the enchanting quality of its emerald waters and to its liveliness by day and by night. We also visited Mon Choisy beach.

We rounded off our week-long Mauritius visit with the Catamaran sunset cruise. Catamaran is a sailing motor boat with 2 hulls lying parallel to each other joined across the top by the deck. Sailing to a small rocky island, watching exotic birds, sea-animals including star fish in the shallow waters in the island, transported us to a different world altogether.

Rocky Islands (Source: Google)

                 Exotic bird                                                           Starfish
One thing that struck us in Mauritius was the imprint of India everywhere.  We saw a bus named Sangini; we saw a Radhika store, a Poonam Boutique, a Pandit Sahadeo School, a Namaste Restaurant and an Anand Store. We spotted a ‘Hotel Ganesh’ and a shop with a name board ‘Puja ka Saman’. The airport has a sign ‘Swagatam’ in Hindi. We saw branches of Life Insurance Corporation of India and outlets of Indian Oil. Waiters at restaurants speak Hindi. 

''Namaste' Welcome at a Restaurant

Wherever we went, we saw Hindu temples and met people of Indian origin. The priest of the temple at Ganga Talao is from Puri, the abode of Lord Jagannath, in Odisha.

Hindu Temples in Mauritius

At one spot, we purchased coconut water from a person who is a namesake of the first Prime Minister Ramgoolam and who traced his origin to India. He spoke Hindi. At Mon Choisy beach, we purchased from one Hindi-speaking Devanand and his wife Priya, pineapple pieces and very tasty slices of half-ripe mango soaked in vinegar, salt, sugar and other ingredients. He said that his forefathers had migrated from India.

At Grand Beach, we relishedd dhol puri, a dish prepared by non-resident Biharis. We found out that it is made with maida and besan with vegetable stuffing. 

One thing that struck me was the absence of traffic police at crossroads, unlike in India. Traffic is efficiently regulated by red, green and amber lights.

A story about Mauritius would be incomplete without a reference to the dodo bird. This extinct bird occupies a prominent place in the minds of the people. Near the Albino beach there is a mall called ‘Dodo Supermarket’. Replicas of dodo flood souvenir shops everywhere. I purchased one.

 Wooden dodo Purchased by me

Mauritius was known as the only home of dodos. These bird lived in the uninhabited Mauritius where it remained undisturbed for so long that it lost its need and ability to fly. It lived and nested on the ground and ate fruits which fell from trees. In 1505, when the Portuguese came, the island became a stopover for ships engaged in the spice trade. Weighing over 20 KG, the dodo bird was a welcome source of fresh meat for the sailors. Large numbers of dodos were killed for food.

Later, when the Dutch used the island as a penal colony, pigs and monkeys were brought to the island along with the convicts. Many of the ships that came to Mauritius had rats aboard, some of which escaped onto the island. Before humans and other animals arrived, the dodo had little to fear from predators. The rats, pigs and monkeys made meals of vulnerable dodo eggs in the ground nests. Within 100 years of the arrival of humans in Mauritius, the once abundant dodo became a rare bird.

The last dodo was killed in 1681. It has become only a memory.

The extinction of dodo has given birth to the phrase ‘as dead as a dodo’ in English. The phrase implies that if something is as dead as dodo, it is completely lost forever and is not important or popular any more.

Persons with Indian passports do not require visa to visit Mauritius. One Indian Rupee is equivalent to 0.52 Mauritius Rupee.

I must confess that since Mauritius is in the Indian Ocean, i had presumed it is in Asia, not Africa. The wife and i felt happy that we had visited A NEW CONTINENT!!!

Of course, the person who enjoyed the trip most was the granddaughter!