All Hail the Elephant God!

Idols lined upPhoto:
Ganpati idols waiting for their big moment
Image: Chanjit Singh

“Ganpatti bappa … morya! Ganpatti bappa … morya!” These enthusiastic shouts, accompanied by dozens of dholaks or drums and the smell of hundreds of incense sticks didn’t let me sleep for the last ten days. Why? Because it was Ganesh Chaturthi again, the Indian festival dedicated to celebrating the elephant god’s birthday. Here’s an eye-witness account of this most boisterous of Indian festivals.

Ganesh is believed to be the harbinger of good luck and the remover of all obstacles and is therefore a favourite in the Indian pantheon of gods for young and old. Like most Indian festivals, Ganesh Chaturthi follows the lunar calendar and therefore the first day of the ten-day festival falls on the fourth day of the waxing moon period, usually between August 20 and September 15 (Get it? I’m starting to see why Indians are so good at math).

Finishing touches for next year – a Ganpati workshop:
Finishing touchesPhoto:
Image via sulekha

The festival starts with the installation of a small statue of Lord Ganesh in people’s homes. The Ganesh temples compete with each other for the largest and most elaborate idols, which can take up to a year to make. Yes, that means preparations for next year are already underway!

Here’s one of the tallest Ganesh idols in India, just after being moulded, dried and now ready for painting. The taller Ganesh idols can be pictured standing, like this one here, whereas the smaller ones usually show Ganesh in a sitting pose.

Patiently waiting for paint:
Waiting for paintPhoto:
Image via sulekha

Families decide beforehand for how many days they want to keep the idol – one day, three days, five days or the full ten days – before immersing it in the sea. Then, the god is quite unceremoniously brought to a family’s house from the workshop or shop.

By car…
Ganpati in carPhoto:
Image via sulekha

…or on foot:
Ganpati on the headPhoto:
Image via sulekha

But once at home, Ganesh is treated like a most welcome guest. A corner of the house is dedicated to the god and decorated with flowers, incense sticks and offerings like fruits, sweets and money.

A lovingly decorated, environmentally friendly clay Ganpati:
Clay GanpatiPhoto:
Image via

“Keeping” a Ganpati means showcasing him in one’s home for darshan or viewing and a steady stream of friends, family and neighbours dropping in at all times. Being a popular god is tiring work, so he needs to be entertained and fed – the first plate of every meal prepared going to him. I went for a darshan and it was refreshing to see that not only members of the Hindu community were invited but people of any faith – Christians, Moslems and Parsis all happily mingled to help out or pay their respects to Ganpati.

On immersion days, small idols are simply carried by hand, bigger idols are pushed on handcarts, and huge temple idols transported on trucks, often with hundreds of singing and dancing followers, loud music and enthusiastic cries of “Ganpatti bappa … morya!” As the followers gain in strength, traffic comes to a standstill, beach roads are clogged and all beaches become a sea not of waves but of tens of thousands of people.

Immersion of big idols at Mumbai’s Chowpatty beach:
Immersions at MumbaiPhoto:
Image via bombaylives

Introduced to join Indians together during the times of the British, its uniting origins probably explain why the festival is popular across Indian cultures and communities even today. Millions queue up for Ganpati viewings at the big temples every year and donate generously.

Idols lined up at the beach in Tarkarli:
Idling aroundPhoto:
Yuvraj Tikam

Hindustan Times ran a revenue comparison on 8th September 2009 of Mumbai’s three biggest Ganpati temples titled “Crores and Still Counting.” The Lalbaugcha Raja collected Rs. 4.57 crore ($942,000) in cash (and is still counting) plus various gold and silver jewellery items; the GSB Seva Mandal collected over Rs. 4.25 crore ($877,000) in cash, gold and silver ornaments and two gold ears for Ganesh. The GSB Samiti does not disclose the amount of donations but confirmed that it received two arms and legs for Ganesh made of gold.

Where does the money go? The jewellery is usually auctioned off and all money collected used for sponsoring education and medical aid for the underprivileged, often students and seniors.

Even after a few sleepless nights, it is hard not to be taken in by the colours, crowds and the festival atmosphere and join in the shouts of “Ganpatti bappa … morya“ – Ganesh, Father, come soon again next year!

Don’t lose your head during Ganpati:
Ganpati headPhoto:
Image via sulekha

All’s well that ends well one could say but what a rude awakening the next morning. My beach stroll turned into a nightmare as I ducked wilted flower garlands, plastic bags, slow-rotting plaster-of-Paris idol pieces and other festival garbage that seemed to be everywhere. Even the hardy crew of sanitation workers cleaning the beach every day could not keep up: half the mess still remained after their time was up.

Ganesh afterwards on the beach:
Ganesh piecesPhoto:
Manish Vij

Says Aditi Nadkarni, contemporary film critic, poet and cancer researcher, on her blog desicritics:

“Plaster Of Paris is much cheaper than clay but unfortunately less soluble in water. As a result the Ganesh idol that has been treated like a beloved houseguest by so many faithful devotees, sits at the bottom of the ocean, slow disintegration of the plaster releasing toxic elements into the water. The chemicals used in painting the idol contain hazardous mercury and cadmium metals. As the magnificent four arms, golden crowns and loving brown eyes of the elephant god crumble into the seawater, the ocean’s flora and fauna suffer from the sudden increase in acidity and toxicity of the water. For years this issue has been tap-danced around to protect religious sentiment.”

Funnily enough, religious sentiments do not seem to be hurt when idol remains are carted off by diggers like garbage:
Ganpati remainsPhoto:
Image: Manish Vij

Every year, the cries for an environmentally friendly Ganpati get a bit louder and more people opt for soluble clay or paper mache Ganpatis and symbolic immersions instead of dumping everything in the sea. Schools are really at the forefront of spreading the message here but like all grassroots movements, it will take time. And as long as plaster-of-Paris idols are considerably cheaper, easier and faster to mass produce than the greener alternatives, nothing much will change. In a country where so many people have so little, splurging on Ganpati cannot include going green until going green provides the cheaper alternative.

Sources: 1, 2, 3