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Toronto pilgrims head to holy waters of Mauritius

The first week of March, all roads in the island republic of Mauritius lead to the Ganga Talao (translation: Holy Ganges).

The lake, named for India's sacred river, is in the mountains, 2,000 feet above sea level, and every year it attracts Hindu pilgrims from around the world to Mauritius (pop: 1.3 million). This year Canada, home to 4,000 Hindus from the island, officially joins the roster of countries sending worshippers.

Also known as "the Grand Basin," Ganga Talao is more than just the symbolic namesake of India's holy waterway.

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"As the story goes when the Hindus from India started migrating to Mauritius during the middle of 18 th century and early part of 1900, they carried with them sacred water from the Ganga Ma (mother Ganges) and poured that water in the Ganga Talao and that's how, we Hindus believe the water from Ganga Talao is the sacred water," explains Ishwar Lall, 53, an office worker in Toronto who came to Canada in 2011.

The pilgrimage to the basin begins the week before the Hindu festival of Shivratree, the night of Shiva, to honour the creator, the 'benevolent God' of the pantheon. Villagers and visitors carry bamboo frames, strewn with flowers, on their shoulders – within are containers for the sacred water, which they carry home.

The Shivratree this year falls on March 10.

"Our belief is that this water stays fresh for a very, very long time. People use this water for religious prayers on Shivratree, for various rituals, etc.," says Ben Sennik, 80, Mauritius's honorary consul to Canada. Born in Kenya, he migrated to Mauritius in 1967 and took part in the festival annually when he lived there. He has returned every two years since moving to Canada in 1976.

Robin Doobay and his wife, Parvati, will make the two-kilometre walk from their village to the basin. it's the first time the Toronto couple is participating in the ritual in Mauritius – for 35 years they have celebrated Shivratree at the Vishnu Temple in Richmond Hill.

"We have always observed fast for 24 hours and that we will do while in Mauritius as well," said Mr. Doobay, an electrical engineer.

"I find that during fasting we can bring our mind and body together, we can better meditate, we can concentrate inwards, and it helps me engross more in my prayers and you wash yourself from within, through fasting and prayers."

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Mr. Sennik has promoted a visit by a small group from Toronto, including the Doobays, to the holy site this year, where he says Shivratree is celebrated 'with passion."

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