MUMBAI, India — At a line of stalls in Mumbai’s Matunga East, men sit on wooden stands and others crouch underneath, their hands working fast as they tie flower after flower together to make garlands of every size and color combination.

On another street, men and women line up down the block, waiting to buy incense that will be used as an offering. Mumbai is geering up for Ganesh Chaturthi, a celebration of the Hindu elephant-headed god Lord Ganesh and one of the city’s most elaborate festivals.

Idol maker Sagar Chitale unveils one of the Ganesh sculptures he made at his shop in Mumbai. 
(Hanna Inger Win/GlobalPost)

But all is not merry. As the festival has grown in popularity and become modernized and, some would argue, commercialized, its traditional practices have developed into a strain on India’s environment. The state government for Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, and local NGOs and activists have responded with a campaign to give Ganesh a makeover — of the green variety.

“It’s an effort to make the whole festival eco-friendly because it results in a lot of water pollution at the end of the day,” said state environment secretary Valsa Nair Singh.

Indians celebrate the festival, which began Sept. 11 and lasts almost two weeks, by making sculptures of Ganesh, bringing them home to worship and then immersing them in a sea of water to bid farewell to Lord Ganesh. Ganesh is worshipped as the god of success. He is also associated with wisdom and overcoming obstacles.

For centuries the idols were made out of mud or soil, which easily biodegraded in the water. However, in the past few decades, modern materials such as plaster of Paris as well as lead- and zinc-based paints have become popular. After the water immersion, the plaster idols do not biodegrade, and the chemicals pollute the water and disrupt the fish and plant life, say environmentalists. The health risks extend to humans, who eat the fish and drink the water.

The festival has also exploded in popularity and intensity. Now about 5 million idols are made in Maharashtra each year, Singh said. And the idols, painted with brilliant colors and elaborate designs, can reach up to 25 feet high.

The Green Ganesh campaign includes efforts to persuade worshippers to buy clay or paper idols that biodegrade more easily, and workshops aimed at teaching idol-makers and paint companies how to use eco-friendly materials. Some groups have also promoted artificial tanks for the immersion ritual rather than natural water bodies.

Environmental lawyer and activist Girish Raut argues that the eco-friendly efforts should not provoke controversy because environmental protection is integral to all religions.

“Devotion and environmental protection go hand in hand,” he said, noting that Ganesh himself, a god with an elephant head and human body, should be a reminder of the unity between man and animals.

But persuading customers to prioritize the environment over having the most attractive and impressive idols has been a struggle. Idol-makers say most clients make their decision based on cost, weight and glamour. Sometimes that coincides with natural products, but often it does not.

One such artist in central Mumbai, Rajen Pulekar, said he has been making Ganesh sculptures for the past 25 years and has seen a trend toward plaster of Paris ones. The price difference is negligible for small idols, he said as a young worker squatted on the floor near him and painted a red streak down the trunk of a miniature Ganesh.

Once they reach three feet, the clay idols become more time-intensive to make and can cost about 10,000 rupees ($217), double the price of a plaster one, Pulekar said.

Many worshippers want to buy the larger idols because they believe it is the best way to celebrate such a significant religious holiday.

At a shop in Matunga East, Sagar Chitale says he is the third generation in his family to make Ganesh idols. He makes about a third of his idols using paper, which he says begins melting as soon as the material touches the water.

“You can see your immersion on the spot. Within minutes, it will get dissolved,” he said as he stood in a shed filled with nine-foot-tall Ganeshes, each painted with different colors and designs. On one, the Ganesh’s skirt was made with a material that looks and feels like red velvet.

A man prepares an arrangement of flowers to be used to decorate a Ganesh sculpture in Mumbai.
(Hanna Inger Win/GlobalPost)

Chitale said most of his clients choose paper sculptures not because they care about water pollution but because they want a lighter option. Chitale shows his sculptures to Krishna Devendran, a cable operator from Dharavi, who will buy an 8-feet paper idol for his housing society. Devendran said he needs a light idol to ensure that his friends and neighbors, who will likely have had a few drinks, do not trip and fall as they bring the idol to the water for the immersion ceremony.

Some customers also make their idol selection based on another practicality — the state of Mumbai’s roads. Idols must be strong enough to withstand a bumpy procession ride, and many fear that clay idols cannot compete with Mumbai’s potholes.

State environment secretary Singh said Maharashtra considered banning plaster, but that the festival is so large that it would be impossible to implement such a law. Instead, she said the campaign relies on voluntary participation by boosting public awareness. She said the state has a long way to go before the festival is entirely eco-friendly, but she is confident the efforts are making an impact, one Ganesh at a time.

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