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Mauritiusly Yours: The Art of Tombmaking

As a child who grew up in La Saline, Port-Louis, I had the amazing experiencing the lesser-known artists of Mauritius- the tombalistes.

Les Salines (La Saline) and Cassis are well-known for their cemeteries representative of every religious group in Mauritius. As a zanfan of La Saline, I used to roam around the graveyards, fascinated by their structure, the magnificent and elaborated decorations found on many tombs. Some tombs dated from the 1700.

There is a little area nearby the La Saline surgery, a few tombalistes gather there daily to work on pre-ordered tombs. With their little hammers and chisels, they slowly work through big rocks, carving their way through their unique designs.

‘Each tomb is different,’ I remember them telling me. ‘Families would order what they want, and we make it the way they want to pay respect to their loved ones. Some are more challenging, as they want more elaborate works carved in, it takes days for us to work through each order. It is hard work, and we have to work outside, sometimes accidents do happen as well. But we know this job very well, it has been passed on from our forefathers. But kids nowadays have no interest in this.’

‘Sometimes, we receive orders for other things too, like when the gran dimoun ou bann blan want something sculpted to put up on their wall, or statues in their gardens, this does not happen very often but it’s a change when it does.’

Then my Uncle who knew them really well, being a zanfan dock would ask, ‘Kan mo ross cari pou paré la? To ti dir moi mo pu gayn li yer, la to pu racont mwa 1 lot zistwar!’

‘When will my ross cari be ready? You told me I would have it by yesterday, now you gonna make up another story!'

The ross cari, a Mauritian manual blender was a common commodity in households that started to disappear slowly with the advent of moulinex (blenders). Mums, aunties and grandmothers would make home-made curry paste and chutney on this ross cari by pushing the baba ross cari back and forth until a homogenous paste would form. There is something about chutneys or curry paste made on the ross cari, a taste that no blender can carry, maybe it was that special touch of love that our matriarchs used to add to the food, or it could simply be some residue of the rock itself, some extra nutrients!

The tombalistes, a skilful and talented group of people who have been passing their knowledge from generation to generations are often not seen as the great sculptors they are, their work of art is barely appreciated by those living, yet the dead knows how much sweat was put in providing them their emballage after death.

A special thank you to members of Ile Maurice, l’étincelante for rekindling those memories.

Your Mauritiusly,

FH 15/3/21

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