Culture

Why the Ganesh festival is noisy, colorful and insane

People celebrate during the Ganesh festival in Mumbai.

People celebrate during the Ganesh festival in Mumbai.

Credit:

Anne Bailey

Every year here in Mumbai, Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of new beginnings, gets an 11-day party.

He comes home to those who invite him. It’s a happy, fun and noisy time of year in this part of the country. For a festival that started out as a single day on which patriots could subvert the colonial government’s ban on public gatherings, it’s taken on a life of its own.

The Hindu God, Ganesha.

Credit:

Marco Werman

The festival doesn’t have a fixed date — its days depend on the lunar calendar. In the last 30 years, I’ve seen it mushroom into the most important, extravagant festival in Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital. It even overshadows even Diwali, the festival of lights.

Ganesha, also known as Ganpati, is the son of Shiva, the destroyer in the Hindu trinity, and the goddess Parvati. Ganesha's personality is so affable that he’s worshipped by people from all communities, economic strata and even religions.

In general, the festival has both a personal and public component. Most areas have a large Ganpati idol, around which its denizens gather for community prayers. My apartment building has one about three feet high — and the neighborhood Ganesha, who has a temporary tent built for him, blocking about two lanes of traffic, is 10 feet high. The largest idol in Mumbai, the Lalbaugcha Raja (the king of Lalbaug), sees a million visitors, some of whom wait in line as long as 40 hours. Yes, you read that right: 40 hours to see the god.

For the private aspect of worship, he comes home where he is treated like a guest, a VIP. Prayers are conducted twice a day, people drop in to pay their respects, and he’s given offerings of sweets — especially modaks, conical-shaped steamed dumplings of rice flour, jaggery sugar and coconut. Some houses don’t cook with onions while he’s home, but no one has offered me a satisfactory explanation of that yet.

A woman kisses the Hindu God Ganesha.

Credit:

Anne Bailey

Preparations start quite a bit earlier than the festival itself. In fact, some of the artisans who make the larger Ganeshas work year-round. Workshops in the interiors of the city are filled with molded and hand-sculpted idols in every color, shape, size and accoutrement. Early in the monsoon season, people go place an order for their idol, who is then brought home on the first day of the festival with much chanting and cheering.

One of the prayers you’ll hear as he’s brought home is “Ganpati Bappa Morya.” It’s chanted as a call-and-response: Someone shouts “Ganpati Bappa” (Lord Ganesha) and the crowd yells back, “Morya” (our beloved). It’s always fun. Chants are sometimes made up on the spot, like cheers. Yesterday I heard “Ek, do, teen, chaar” (One, two, three, four) answered with “Ganpatichya jayjaykaar” (Praise be to Ganpati): this improvised chant went on through the number 20!

 

Girl drummers aren't very common in India, but these girls didn't get the memo. #herrights @womenslives

A video posted by Anne Bailey (@annestoltebailey) on

After Ganesha's had his visit, he’s returned to the Earth by immersing the idol in a body of water. Most small Ganeshas are kept a day and a half, but others are kept three, five, seven or 11 days.

The fifth day of the Ganesha festival is pretty hardcore. Today, Ganesha and Gauri — an incarnation of his mother Parvati — are both immersed in the water. And every immersion, or visarjan day, is quite a mess. The fifth and the last days are the big ones.

And we save the most insanity for the 11th and final day of the festival. The city comes to an absolute standstill, and all the locals know better than to try and do anything besides their Ganesha immersion. All the community Ganeshas are loaded up on trucks; devotees dance in the cordoned streets; drummers and DJs accompany each Ganesha. And it always, always, always rains.

The crowd is wild as it winds its way to one of five designated immersion spots on the waterfront. It starts at noon and goes on well past midnight. And it’s a given that the next day, office attendance dips everywhere.

What I like about this noisy, colorful, usually drunken fiesta is that everyone joins in. When I took the Across Women’s Lives team to see the first day of visarjan, a local mandala or association was in charge of taking the Ganesh idols into the choppy sea. They had their names printed on their T-shirts: Robin, Asif, Neville, Roopesh, Monu. These were Christian, Muslim and Hindu residents, all bidding Ganesha farewell together.

As for me, I usually plan a short vacation to a non-Hindu country (what can I say?) to avoid the madness. This year, it didn’t work out, so I’ve mostly stayed home and kept my earplugs on, while in the distance I hear the farewell chants: “Ganpati Bappa Morya, Pudcha varshi lavkarya. Ganpati gele gaonalo, chain na mile aamala” — “Beloved Lord Ganesha, come quickly next year. Ganpati’s gone home, leaving me heart broken.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the goddess Gauri is Ganesha's consort. She's in fact a manifestation of the goddess Parvati, his mother.

 

The big Ganesh goes in.

A video posted by Anne Bailey (@annestoltebailey) on

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