A few times every year, the streets of Mumbai turn into a carnival and recently, the guest of honor Ganesh, the elephant headed, roly-poly god of new beginnings. After 10 days of a homestay, families and communities accompany him to his final immersion in water, where his Earthen form breaks down and returns to the earth from which it came.
If that sounds poetic, I am overstating the case. The festival is far from serene. It’s a garish, uproarious mess that wreaks havoc on traffic as well as mental peace for the duration.
For 11 days, you find yourself humming these aartis or prayers Idols of Ganesh are set up on his birthday – Ganesh Chaturthi. It’s a state holiday in India so people can go ‘Ganesh shopping’ at their local warehouse and markets. Which Ganesh statue you bring home is a matter of personal taste. They can range from six inches high to several feet tall, all blessed by a priest.
Neighborhoods also come together and set up mandals or stalls. Prayers are conducted every few hours and the zealous even set off firecrackers.
For 10 days, Ganesh is treated like a revered member of the extended family. At the end of the festival he is loaded onto a truck and trundled to a designated beach. On day one, five and seven the smaller immersions, or visarjans are relatively quieter affairs. On the last day it’s on a much larger scale.
Last year, nearly 19 billion idols were immersed over the course of the festival. This year, officials estimate that the total reached 21 billion.
There is a final cry of ganpati, or father, hurry back next year from the participants on the beaches before Ganesh is lowered into the water. For some people that’s an interminable wait, but for us Mumbaikars, the peace is short lived.
Words by Chhavi Sachdev. Photographs by Lauren Farrow
Published on The World, October 15, 2010