Some may consider Ganesha a curious God. With a human body and an elephant’s head, he often seems a little comical, even grotesque at times – but always benevolent. Pot-bellied and enormous, he rides everywhere on the smallest of vehicles, a mouse. Generous and friendly, he sometimes holds deadly weapons and although part animal, he is recognized as one of the great scholars of the Hindu pantheon.
Everywhere you go in India, Ganesha is omnipresent. Somewhere in every Hindu household a small Ganesha statue will reside, bringing good luck and removing all obstacles. Ganesha is perhaps most highly regarded in Maharashtra, and when it comes to rejoicing his birthday, people from all social and economic levels join in the revelry.
Ganesha Chaturthi (Ganpati or Vinayaka Chathurthi) is celebrated in late August or early September, depending on the cycle of the moon. The festival celebrations last for ten days and have been celebrated since the era of Shivaji, the founder of the Maratha Empire. It was first celebrated on a large scale in Pune, with the tradition continuing and becoming even more magnified during the Peshwa dynasty.
Although Ganesha Chaturthi lost its significance and popularity during British rule, it received its redemption through the radical reformer Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak (b.1856 d.1920). He was the one who restarted the celebration of Ganesha Chaturthi just like it was in the old times, and it soon became a focus of Indian nationalist energy and a means to touch the common people’s hopes and aspirations. The British colonial authorities called Tilak “The father of the Indian unrest”, Mahatma Gandhi called him “The Maker of Modern India”.
Now, four decades after Indian independence, the festival is a pure and simple celebration – especially in Maharashtra, and especially in Pune.
Preparations for this sacred festival begin months in advance, and on the actual day of the festival beautifully crafted statutes of Ganesha are placed on raised platforms in homes or in decorated outdoor podiums for people to view and pay their homage. Temples devoted to Lord Ganesha also organize special events and prayers. Those who have a Ganesha statue in their home treat and care for him as a much loved guest.
On the last day of Ganesha Chaturthi the statues of Ganesha are taken through the streets, accompanied with dancing and the sound of exciting drum-beats, devotional songs and exploding firecrackers, and then immersed in a nearby lake, river or sea.
My first and only encounter with this festival period was way back in 2013, it’s hard to believe that was almost nine years ago now. Although I had little idea what to expect at the time, it was clear in the days running up to the last day of Ganesha Chaturthi that I was in for quite an experience.
For days community groups had been practicing drumming and dancing, and brass bands polishing off their repertoire and their instruments. Big gunny sacks of lurid red powder appeared in shops, and every street corner sprouted temporary stages with walls of corrugated metal.
By the time the ten days of the official festival began, the city was at a fever pitch of excitement, and as the last day approached, the drumming got more and more exuberant, the brass bands blared happily, and the street-corner stages displayed scenes from Hindu mythology accompanied by raucous recordings of devotional singing played back over loudspeakers overloaded beyond distortion.
On the festival’s last day, people assembled within their local communities to start their celebrations. The sound of drumming could be heard from all directions, which helped me locate where the spectacle could be witnessed. Sometimes at a single street corner the drums and brass from seemingly all directions mixed in a bizarre and uplifting clash of sound. As I approached each community group, the entire world changed irrevocably.
These groups featured the shallow kettle-drums called “tasha,” as well as a huge bass drum played horizontally with a stick like a small baseball bat, and a lot of small hand cymbals about five inches in diameter, clashed together in a simple unison beat. But it was the tasha that dominated.
Tuned fantastically high, they’re played with thin, whip-like sticks. Their sound is piercingly sharp and penetrating, and the good players rattled off steady streams of brilliantly accented sextuplets above the deep pulse of the bass drum and the cymbals’ steady clang. It was totally exhilarating, and seemingly never ending as the celebrations continued long into the night.
Being located quite some distance from any serious body of water, I didn’t witness much in the way of the Ganesha immersions, which I’m quite glad about. Many idols across the country are made with plaster of paris, sometimes with small quantities of plastic and cement. Plaster of paris contains calcium sulphate hemihydrate, a material that takes anywhere between months and years to fully dissolve in water. In doing so, it reduces oxygen levels in the water, killing fish and other aquatic life.
In addition to this, these idols are often coloured with bright paints that contain heavy metals such as lead, nickel, cadmium, and mercury. These heavy metals can affect the PH balance of the water; making it more acidic and thus further poisoning its inhabitants. Additionally, these materials can cause skin diseases in humans when they come into contact with the water, as well as poisoning us through the fish and birds eaten as food.
But it doesn’t stop there, as the idols are not immersed in isolation. They are often decked with flowers, plastic decorations, camphor, and even polystyrene (also known as thermocol). All this solid waste also ends up in water bodies, further straining already polluted rivers and lakes. Even the flowers, which are usually bio-degradable, often have pesticides and fertilizers that leech into the water.
This pollution has various effects. The solid waste blocks the natural flow of water; which can cause stagnation and the breeding of mosquitoes and other harmful pests. With nowhere to go, the water ends up being further polluted by other forms of waste. The end result is huge amount of water pollution that poisons water bodies for years.
Every year the government spends crores of rupees in an effort to clean out the garbage that pollutes the lakes and rivers in the months after the festival. In an effort to combat this, many measures have been taken by the government to try and improve the environmental situation. These include encouraging idols to be made out of organic non-baked clay that dissolves quickly, the use of natural colours, and even the addition of fish foods and seeds. The use of public water bodies like tanks and lakes has also been discouraged. The pandemic situation in the last couple of years has of course also put a temporary pause on any large scale celebrations.
Thankfully the environmental consequences of the festival are improving all the time, much helped by the younger generations who are perhaps more educated and aware of resulting impact.
The memories from witnessing the celebrations prior to immersions on that day nine years ago has remained steadfast in my mind; the chaotic sounds coupled with everyone having the time of their lives was a complete joy to be part of.
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