Regular visitors of Mauritius are familiar with the village found in the North of Port-Louis, on the road to Trou-aux-Biches. An inevitable landmark for those who are heading to the luxury hotels of the North-Western coast. Houses line up the two sides of the interminable road: shops, stalls, snack-bars, flash by before the tourists who are eager to go back to their hotel or setting out for trips across the island. It is quite rare for someone to stop in this particular region, as the village seems to be without any great interest. Buses splutter thick curls of black smoke as they go by, cars hoot all day, bikers try to thread their way through the traffic while motorcycles backfire. Obviously, there is too much noise and pollution.
This village is known as Triolet and it is here that I have decided to make a halt for the night. The sun is going down and night will soon settle over, as it is the case in all tropical countries. Suddenly, the whole décor changes: we had come upon a magical and enchanting scene. A genuine succession of lights illuminated the houses, villas, restaurants and shops. Twinkling string of lights, colorful or white light only, decorated the streets. We were in the heart of the Divali festival.
Divali is the festival of light, joy and good fortune for everyone. It is considered to be among the most important festivals of the Indian culture and tradition. Celebrating Divali is synonymous of siding with light instead of darkness, of the power of knowledge against ignorance, and of opting for good over evil. Divali or Deepavali, comes from two Hindi words: deepa which means light, and avali which means row. The words clearly depict the wonderful scene before our very eyes. All these lights are supposed to guide the Goddess Luckshmi who brings wealth, good luck and wisdom on earth.
In no time, the road is full of people. An atmosphere of village fair has taken hold of the whole place. Cars had trouble in clearing their way: pedestrians took up the whole street to celebrate the festival in its due fashion. Indian songs and music blared out over the tinny loud-speakers. People greeted each other happily and little sweet cakes were shared around. Everyone was in a joyful mood and Happy Divali wishes were gushing out from everywhere. The children were having a real good time, either with Bengal lights or thundering firecrackers. Together, they were enjoying themselves!
However, what the tourists do not know is that during the days preceding the festival, the Hindu families set out to carefully clean and tidy their respective house. They decorated the ground with colorful powders that filled in the sacred patterns: rangolis. They prepared tasty dishes and carefully wrapped cakes and other delicacies that they will share among their relatives, friends and neighbors, and also among the tourists who will be passing through the village. The values of this symbolic festival reside in the sharing and offering of these cakes; signs of harmony and love. The men have a tailor-made Hindu traditional suit, and on the same occasion, they have offered a new shimmering sari to their wife. Afterall, they must mark the occasion’s standards!
If we head into one of the roads that forked off at the right or left of the main street, the décor changes once again. To begin with, we discovered that Triolet is not simply made up of this row of houses seen at first sight. It is also a city that comprises small iron-roofed houses, and further, the countryside with its harvested sugarcane fields. The road was lost in complete darkness, except for some illuminated houses that we saw from time to time. However, they did not shine with the previous splendor for oil lamps, small earthenware lamps that beckoned us to join in their warmth, illuminated them.
Further down, we came across an illuminated temple: men and women were seated in the yard and were reciting mantrams. The children’s foreheads have been smeared with vermilion powder. An altar has been raised and was decorated with flowers, fruits and delicacies as offerings to the Gods.
An old turbaned priest, with a beard like Santa, welcomed the devotees by joining his hands together. At this precise moment, I realized that these people greeted each other in the same way as they worshipped their Gods and Goddesses: with respect, love and reverence. That was quite a lesson!
While getting back to the excitement of the main street, I met an old lady who was quite uncomfortable seated on a tiny bench. She was proud to show me her son’s house that was brilliantly illuminated and carefully decorated. I came to learn that she has always been interested in Hindu philosophy and beliefs.
I took the advantage to ask her more about the origin of Divali.
This festival is dedicated to our Goddess Luckshmi who is the wife of God Vishnu. She always accompanies Him whenever he comes back down to earth. She will then take the form of a human being to help Man in his fight against evil.
She goes on with her story. Other people have joined in and listened respectfully to this wise old woman.
When Rama became the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, his wife took the appearance of Sita and the history of their lives on earth is part of the Ramayana epic. Rama, son of the King of Ayodhya, was the victim of evil plots from his near ones and had to leave the palace together with his wife Sita. Abandoned and deprived of all comfort, they had to roam about in the jungle. A demon, Ravena, took advantage of their unfortunate condition to kidnap Sita and brought her to his kingdom, in Ceylon. Desperate, Rama asked for help from Hanuman who was the chief of the monkeys' army. Finally, Ravena was killed, his kingdom was conquered and Sita was rescued. Then, husband and wife returned to Ayodyha where the people illuminated the whole town with rows of lights to welcome them back. Ever since then, every year, the small lamps of Divali commemorate the rescue and the return of Sita.
Bringing her hands together, she concluded her story by singing: Om Shanti Shanti Shanti!. This is a sacred chant that the whole crowd repeated after her, thus calling upon harmony and peace to her and to the whole world.
Suddenly, it seemed to me as if I was miles away, on the banks of the Ganges, in Benares, in deep communion with all the believers spread across the world. That night, I managed to catch a glimpse of the heavens through the festival of light: Divali.
Text: © Maurice Matthey • Photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra