Mauritius is an incredible multi-cultural island nation, whose people celebrate their differences, rather than let their differences divide them. Visiting Grand Bassin is the ideal way to learn more about Mauritian Hindu culture, digging deeper than the beautiful beaches this stunning country is known for.
Want to skip the story and head straight to the practical information on how to visit Grand Bassin? Head to the practicalities.
Giant gods and goddesses
As we drove along the long straight road towards Grand Bassin, rainclouds rolled in and I could have been fooled into thinking we were back in England. Not a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. It was all a bit awkward if I’m honest, and I’d begun to feel very much like a deflated balloon.
Fat raindrops pelted the car, and our surroundings were shrouded in thick fog. With no idea of what Grand Bassin looked like or if it was even worth the drive, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was starting to consider turning around as an option. Our spirits were decidedly dampened as the fog closed in and we could barely see where we were. We squinted in an attempt to see road signs or the turret of a temple that signified this sacred location.
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From what I could tell, this particular road in Mauritius seemed very much like a quiet but rainy day on the M1 towards Luton. Not overly inspiring. You know!?
All of a sudden the shadowy form of a giant-like figure seeped through the fog, materialising almost above us. I was genuinely a little bit scared.
This was actually a statue of the Hindu goddess Durga Maa, resplendent in coppery-red, wielding a trident and standing proud. She was backed up by a beautiful golden lion. We had finally found Grand Bassin! Whilst the rain continued to ricochet off the roof of the car, we donned our not very-waterproof cover-ups and got ready to explore.
Hinduism in Mauritius
There are temples almost everywhere you turn in Mauritius. Brightly coloured, ornate structures bedecked with gods and goddesses, incense wafting out of the doorways. It’s all rather brilliant if you ask me. The island nation is made up of an eclectic mix of religions- Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and more, coexisting in relative peace and harmony- and Hindus make up around 48% of the population. For Hindus, Grand Bassin is the most sacred place on the entire island.
Mauritius is so very isolated that there’s no indigenous population to speak of; Hinduism arrived in Mauritius with the indentured Indian labourers brought here after slavery was abolished. That was back in the early 1800s; those classic colonial Brits still wanted some form of cheap labour, so Indians worked the plantations and factories in return for their passage to Mauritius and literally zero pay. The majority of the present-day Hindu population of Mauritius is descended from these indentured labourers.
The story of Ganga Talao/Grand Bassin
Grand Bassin- also known as Ganga Talao- is the name of the crater lake about 550 metres above sea level in the mountainous region of Savanne. Hindus believe that the lake was formed when Shiva spilt droplets of the sacred River Ganges into the crater; making Grand Bassin the most important place on the island.
Every year during Maha Shivaratri– a great celebration of Shiva, the most highest-upon-high of all the Hindu gods- pilgrims travel from across the island to Grand Bassin to lay offerings, pray and worship. It is quite the journey you guys. Traditionally the pilgrimage is made on foot and can take three days or more, depending on the start-point. Colourful floats called Kanwars are decked in flowers, bells, and paper garlands, and these are also carried from every town and village in Mauritius to the sacred lake.
The day I left Mauritius was Maha Shivaratri 2020, and aside from a lot of heavily built-up traffic and the remnants of a few brightly coloured flowers scattered across the roads, I missed all the awesomeness of the festival itself. Hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees all descending upon Ganga Talao/Grand Bassin, must be quite the sight to behold.
Arriving at Grand Bassin
The rain and fog that was enveloping Grand Bassin could have made the whole experience rather eerie. And despite the rain there were plenty of people around who had ventured to the temples as well- mostly Hindu families, and a few other visitors like us. But the atmosphere at Grand Bassin was neither eerie nor frantic.
In fact, this is one of the most tranquil places I’ve ever been.
The rain was calming down by the time we were brave enough to clamber out of the car; or to stick more closely to the actual truth, we clambered out of the car when the rain finally cooled it. We ran across the road to the other gargantuan statue- Lord Shiva, also wielding a trident, one palm facing outwards, resplendent in reddish copper. In front of the resplendent Shiva were more statues in glass cases, steamed up inside and coated in beads of condensation.
Leaving the two copper giants behind, we headed for the pastel-coloured temples sitting around the edge of Grand Bassin.
The lake was completely calm and simultaneously completely overflowing, thanks to the heavens opening up that morning. Normally, a pathway encircles the whole of Grand Bassin, but the holy water of the overflowing lake had swallowed it up. Candy-coloured gods and goddesses appeared to float on water in the white mist. Flower garlands were draped around their necks, and different coloured fabrics formed their clothes. I especially appreciated Shiva’s leopard print number.
Here and there, families stood in the shallow water where the path once was, taking offerings of fruit and flowers out of carrier bags to place on raised altars. Tendrils of nag champa curled upwards from the altars into the cold mist. Tiny black fish about half a finger’s length swam in the shallow water, lapping at our ankles, and across the lake, we could make out the vanilla-and-strawberry roof of the Pink Temple, and more gods and goddesses surveying the ethereal landscape.
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It was all rather peaceful if I’m honest.
There are several temples at Grand Bassin, but we only headed into one of them- Shiva’s temple. Aside from the obvious rule of dressing respectfully inside a religious building, when visiting a Hindu temple you also have to remove your shoes. We added ours to the growing rows of assorted footwear at the door and entered, where the air was even thicker with the scent of incense.
What I appreciated more than anything as we walked around was that I didn’t feel out of place once. The white floor tiles were damp with the footprints of plenty of other people, the vast majority of whom were there to pray. But I never felt unwelcome or even a bit strange as we cautiously looped around the temple, breathing in the atmosphere and watching the devotees praying to their gods and goddesses.
I learned a bit about Hinduism in secondary school R.E., but it wasn’t till I visited Ganga Talao/Grand Bassin, that I actually felt that I knew anything about it. This is the most peaceful place in Mauritius, with an atmosphere unlike any I’ve ever experienced. What. A. Joy.
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Practical tips for visiting Grand Bassin
- The best way to get to Grand Bassin is by either car or taxi. If you take a taxi, be prepared for it to be pricey but negotiate a cost before you start your journey.
- If driving to Grand Bassin, there’s plenty of parking available- and it’s completely free of charge. Huzzah!
- Remember that this is a really sacred place, and that people have come here to worship. Keep your voices low and be respectful that this isn’t Disneyland/some other touristy location.
- If a priest offers you a blessing- then you lucky lucky thing! Take it and count your lucky stars.
- Likewise, a family offered one of my friends some fruit to offer to one of the gods as she was watching them pray. Which is a lovely gesture and I feel like one which you just can’t turn down.
- Don’t forget to take your shoes off!
- It’s completely free to visit Grand Bassin and its temples.
- Grand Bassin isn’t far from the Black River Gorges National Park, so combining the two into one trip is ideal.