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Ganesh Chaturthi: Mumbai’s Mammoth Festival

December 2007
Ganesh Chaturthi: Mumbai’s Mammoth Festival

According to a survey carried out by the Ford Foundation in the 1990s, Ganesh Chaturthi, celebrated in Mumbai between August and September, is quite possibly the world's largest public celebration. The number of people who participate in the fervent worship of the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati every year is some 11 million, according to the Foundation. That's more than twice the population of Ireland, and that staggering number makes the Rio Carnival appear like a neighborhood get-together.

But that colossal statistic is one part of a grander picture, one that involves a great city and its unshakeable faith in and love for Lord Ganesha (aka Ganpati, Vigneshwara, Vinayaka and a hundred other names)—and both the opulence of devotion in Mumbai's most desirable pin codes and its austere side in its sprawling slums. About 100 years ago, the festival was a private affair. Indian freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak changed all that. Tilak wanted the festival to be a community celebration and a unifier of a people then under British rule. The first locality to actually do this was the Keshavji Naik Chawl in Girgaum in south Mumbai in 1891, and it still pays obeisance every year in a simple manner, bereft of any kind of flamboyance.

The first stirrings for the ten-day long Ganesh Utsav begin towards July, in Mumbai's Marathi heartland: Parel, Dadar and Lalbaug. That's when the idol makers start putting up their stalls for the year, and steadily, the little shops across the area, lined with chawls and ancient buildings, hawk religious paraphernalia that accompany the worship of Ganesha. The sweet shops hawk the modak (a sweet made of condensed milk); yet others are aglitter with muslin cloth with brocade work, elaborate pedestals, and door hangings. But if you happen to be in the city at the time, it is the idol makers you will gravitate to. Inside their temporary sheds is divinity in various stages of completion. There are dull Ganesha embryos, massive 10- to 15-foot statues with robes being etched on them, and the tiny two-foot ones, ready for dispatch—some with benign expressions, yet others with four hands and more militant postures. The smaller idols head for homes of individuals, while the larger ones adorn pandals set up by various neighborhood organizing committees (mandals) across Mumbai.

Mumbai's biggest Ganesha idol is the fondly named Lalbaugcha Raja (king of Lalbaug), which this year was a 25-foot giant and, according to newspaper reports, attracted over five million devotees. As much of an attraction was the 21-foot clay idol, adorned with 60 kg of gold and 175 kg of silver, worshipped by the Goud Saraswat Brahmin Seva Mandal, a community trust in Wadala in Central Mumbai. The festival starts off with Ganesha being welcomed 'home' amid cries of “Ganpati Bappa Morya” (hail Ganesha!)—and home could be a dingy one-room apartment in government buildings, hutments and chawls to glitzy new-age high rises and mansions.

On the first day of the festival, various idols travel to their respective destinations on hand cart, rickshaw, truck, or Mercedes-Benz, accompanied, more often than not, by motley bands, which, with their clashing cymbals, snare drums, and trumpets, churn out a steady rhythm that plays well into the night. Over the next ten days, Mumbaikars go pandal-hopping, visiting and worshipping at an array of idols in various neighborhoods, which are often arranged and decorated around a theme.

As elaborate and grand as the welcome is the farewell Mumbai bids its favorite god. A lot of idols are immersed in the sea—a practice known as visarjan—towards the end of the second, fifth, or the seventh days when families drive or wheel their Ganeshas on carts towards the Arabian Sea. But the grandest and most moving farewell happens on the tenth day, which is when a lot of the bigger idols are paraded on the streets. That's when Mumbai pauses for an entire day; traffic is rerouted, and the streets that lead towards the sea are filled with rivers of humanity. The processions head out from various parts of the city, but the most sought-after destination is Girgaum Chowpatty. While the smaller idols are carried on hand carts and trucks, the massive ones, like Lalbaugcha Raja, ride on motorized trolleys, often pulled by devotees. It is a scene that's very Mumbai—there's music blaring out of loudspeakers, and played by bands; there are poojas en route performed by worshippers who line the streets; and there's an audience that watches from shop fronts, rooftops, and high rises. By the time the bigger idols reach Chowpatty, it is early morning, but the seafront teems with the city's famous multitudes, about three to four hundred thousand at any given point during the last day of the festival. It's a surreal sight, half a million people on a stretch of sand and more pouring in, and, rising from amidst the little people, towering idols, their accoutrements glinting in the mellow early morning light.

The idols are taken out on boats towards mid-sea or rolled into the sea on specially created steel planks and gently released into the water. The giants slide into the water, feet first, then the belly, and finally, the eyes. It's the end of yet another celebration, but as the devotees head home, on their lips is a fervent wish: “Ganpati Bappa Morya, Pudcha Varshi Laukar Ya” (Hail Ganesha, come again and soon next year).

Text by Murali K Menon

Photos by D.K. Bhaskar

Ganesh Chaturthi in the Environmental Era

Over the last half a decade or so, environmentalists across the state of Maharashtra (Mumbai is its capital) have been trying to create awareness of the impact of the world's largest public celebration on water bodies. Each year, nearly a quarter million idols are immersed into the Arabian Sea, lakes, and rivers across the state. Most of these idols are made from plaster of Paris, which affects the life-carrying capacity of water and equally, if not more, dangerous are the paints and dyes used on the idols. Plaster, unlike clay, takes a long time to dissolve and also makes the water hard, while mercury, zinc, and other heavy metals in paints and dyes prove fatal to mammals, fish, and birds, and very often, because of the bio-accumulative nature of the metals, humans.

While the last couple of years have seen more eco-friendly idols—made from clay or papier-mâché—a large number of the Ganeshas are still made of plaster, and what's more, they are getting bigger every year. And like anywhere else in the world, the government doesn't want to mess with religion. Hope, eco-conscious Mumbaikars will tell you, is visible on the horizon yet.

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