The time of the year, when a large part of the Hindu population erupts into joyous celebration on the streets is around the corner. An entrancing melange of crowds, colors, songs and dances that take your breath away with their sheer energy. This is the time when India says ‘Happy Birthday’ to its revered deity, Lord Ganesha. This Year Ganesh Chaturthi comes on Sept 1, 2011.
Ganesh Chaturthi is also known as Vinayaka Chaturthi in Telugu, Tamil and Kannada, Chavath in Konkani and Chathaa in Nepal Bhasa. Celebrated in the Hindu month of Bhadrapada (mid-August to mid-September), starting on the fourth day of the waxing moon and culminating 10 days later (Anant Chaturdasi), it’s virtually a pan-Indian festival, with the most visible celebrations belonging to states which were formerly a part of the Maratha kingdom – Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
For these states, especially so for Maharashtra, the Ganesha festival has over the decades become a mini-industry. Temple trusts, artisans, designers, manufacturers, carpenters, painters, suppliers, cooks, shopkeepers and petty traders come together in an amazingly well-coordinated operation to produce the spectacular scenes that are watched worldwide today on television. Living proof indeed that Ganesha brings together people from varied walks of life.
During the holiday, along with huge public celebrations, Ganesha is also be worshipped in the quiet of homes across India. In Maharashtra, women fast the day before the festival to invoke the blessings of Parvati, Ganesha’s mother. Clay or painted idols of Ganesha are placed on small platforms and decorated with flowers, red unguent and sandal paste. For the next ten days, the Ganesha stotra and Vedic hymns from the Rig Veda in praise of the deity will be chanted.
Ganesha being a lover of food, housewives get down to preparing his favorite munchie, the modak – rice-flour dumplings stuffed with a coconut-jaggery mixture. It’s a tricky business making them, but they vanish in no time at all! Also on offer for Ganesha are snacks like chaklis, boondi and poha , varieties of sweets and savories.
In southern India, porches are decorated with intricate kolams or designs drawn with red oxide and rice-flour paste to welcome Ganapati. His perch in the puja is decorated with thoranams (garlands of leaves) and plantain saplings on either side. Large parts of city pavements are taken over by people selling all that’s required for the puja – idols, flowers, bilva+ leaves, a type of grass (called arugam pullu in Tamil) and garlands of small, purplish erukampoo flowers specially dedicated to the elephant god. Once he’s all dressed up, he is placed on a special platform. Two colorful paper umbrellas may be placed on either side of him. This being a state holiday, the entire family gets involved in the goings-on, with children especially enjoying the process of decorating the plump elephant god. Some families even make their own idols from clay – not an impossible task, given Ganesha’s rounded physique!
Offerings to the Lord, called neivedhyam, consist of varieties of modaks++ (known in the south as kozhukattai), both sweet and savory, raw rice idli (steamed dumplings), payasam (a sweet, milk-based dessert) and optionally, specially prepared ellurundai (til seed balls) and appams (sweetened rice pancakes) Coconut, betel leaves and nuts and a variety of fruits make up the rest of Ganapati’s delicious repast.
But it’s the public celebrations, especially in Mumbai and Pune, that take your breath away. Priests dressed in red silk dhotis chant mantras before massive, colorfully decorated idols. The elaborate, brightly lit mandals∗ attract an endless stream of devotees. The more social-minded mandals also conduct free medical check-ups and blood donation camps. Cultural activities are staged every evening.
Visarjan – the immersion ceremony – takes place on the third, fifth, seventh or tenth day of the festival. There’s hectic dancing and merriment as Ganesha idols – towering and tiny – are carried through the streets. As the idol is immersed in the sea, and Ganesha returns home to Kailasa∗∗, cries of Ganapati Bappa Morya, agle baras to jaldi aa fill the air. Goodbye Ganesha. Come back to us early next year.
∗ mandals: this word has a dual meaning. It could refer to the organization in charge of the celebrations or the large, decorative tents erected during the festival.
∗∗ Kailasa: the abode of the gods, in the Himalayas.