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10 September 2006

Festival of Ganesh

The Ganesh of the Curry Road community in Mumbai. Image source: Arun Patil

The Ganesh of the Curry Road community in Mumbai
Image source: Arun Patil

THE PASSING WEEK was a spectacular break in the life of Mumbai. It is the annual Ganeshotsav, eleven days of joyous celebration and great devotion across India to honor the birthday of Lord Ganesh. Revered as the lord of good fortune and destroyer of obstacles, Ganesh is the most beloved and most frequently invoked god in Hinduism. His icon adorns doors facing the east to encourage smooth passage, and his mantra is recited to start any task or event. Ganesh has the widest following in Mumbai and the rest of Maharashtra.

The festival starts with Ganesh Chaturthi, when ornately dressed Ganeshas (Ganesh idols) are displayed in pandals (raised platforms) at home for family worship. However, the devotion to the cheerful elephant-headed god is so great that the worship—and adornment—spills from homes onto the streets. Huge, brightly festooned tents rise in the middle of roads, which shimmer with sparkling strings of light. Most of the idols contained in these tents tower over six meters!

On the third and last days of the festival, the Ganeshas are ritually immersed in the nearest body of water. Mumbai practically shuts down to allow processions of people on their way to the Arabian Sea to bid their idols farewell.

Mumbai practically shuts down to allow processions of people to bid their idols farewellThese processions are, to say the least, revelry. I was caught in one of these processions while visiting a supplier on the third-day visarjan (immersion) last week. I enjoyed the elaborate displays of Ganeshas in gigantic pandals, but what riveted me was the spectacular show of merrymaking. Firecrackers punctuated the air. Sharp yells accompanied the brass horns and drums that guided the processions. Then there were people dancing wildly in what a colleague of mine insisted was not Indian, but plain street dancing. On my way home much later that night, I saw a pandal with a man striking a pose by flexing his muscles while teenagers pranced around him to some Bollywood-sounding song. This sight sent my driver to endless fits of laughter. (He was still laughing as we reached home.)

What also interested me was the question of whether the idols immersed into the waters were non-biodegradable. My colleague mentioned that this is the one singular issue that has plagued Ganeshotsav, and that environmentalists have actively taken this to task. On the bright side, newspapers this week reported that some of the idols have in fact been made of more eco-friendly materials.

The morning after the last day, as I drove to work, I saw empty pandals and street hoardings being taken down. The smell of firecrackers still lingered faintly. The stanchions that barricaded the revelers from the traffic were gone. For the masses, who seemed to me to be the only frenzied celebrants of Ganeshatsov, the morning after is once again another ordinary day in the life of Mumbai.

On the way to visarjan at Juhu Beach in Mumbai
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