Wednesday, 19 September marked the beginning of the 10-day festival celebrating the birthday of Ganesha, the Hindu god of good fortune and remover of obstacles. To non-Hindus, Ganesha’s elephant head makes him perhaps the most easily recognizable Hindu god.
Because of his association with prosperity and new ventures, Ganesha is adored in India’s financial capital. Because of his reputation as a remover of obstacles, Ganesh is a common automobile ornament. In Mumbai traffic, any help removing obstacles is appreciated. The celebrations for Ganesh’s birthday make the celebrations a couple of weeks ago for Mother Mary’s birthday pale in comparison.
Ganesh’s story and iconography
The details of the story about how Ganesha earned his elephant head vary, but the most popular version has Ganesha beheaded at the hands of Shiva. Ganesha is the son of Parvati and Shiva and was born while Shiva was away. One day, Parvati was taking a bath and instructed Ganesha to guard the door and not to let anyone enter. When Shiva returned home, he demanded entry to his wife’s bath, which Ganesha denied. In his rage, and not knowing that Ganesha was his son, Shiva beheaded Ganesha. When Shiva learned of Ganesha’s identity, he was filled with remorse and ordered his soldiers to replace Ganesha’s head with the nearest animal head, which turned out to be an elephant.
Unlike other Hindu deities, Ganesha statues have various elements depicted, and artists have license to think creatively about iconography. There are several common elements, however. Ganesha is depicted with a broken tusk, which was used as a quill while transcribing the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic.
He almost always has a sweet in his hand. That is why his belly is so big; he loves his sweets.
He is always depicted with a mouse. Ganesha uses the mouse as transportation by making himself feather light. In keeping with creative license, an artist once depicted the mouse as Mickey Mouse.
Ganesha is often depicted with elements from other gods. Sometimes, he is blue like Krishna; sometimes, he has Shiva’s trident or rides the bull associated with Shiva.
The tableaus that are created during the festivals often depict additional gods and scenes from religious texts.
The public festival
For Mumbaikers, Ganesh Chaturthi is the biggest festival of the year. In the weeks leading up to the festival, Ganesha murti (statues) travel along the city’s major arteries, in some cases snarling traffic as they travel. Ironically, the remover of obstacles becomes quite an obstacle himself for a few days.
The installation of each Ganesha in his pandal (shelter) is a major celebration with drums, dancers, and prayers. After installation, decorations and other tableau elements are added. When we visited the Ganeshas in Khetwadi area on the opening day of the festival, devotees were still hard at work putting the finishing touches on the tableaux. While Ganesha is installed in his pandal, he must always be accompanied. He is considered an honored guest and must never be alone. The honor of keeping Ganesha company falls to someone from the mandal (society of devotees) that sponsors the pandal. Volunteers take turns keeping Ganesha company throughout the festival.
During the festival, devotees flock to the Ganeshas scattered throughout the city. The most famous Ganesha, Lalbaugcha raja, attracts more than 1.5 million people a day. Some mandals, like those at King’s Circle, feed thousands who come to offer prayers to Ganesha.
On the last day of the festival, the many murti will be transported to local water sources. In Mumbai, most will be taken to the Arabian sea. In Powai, the murti will be taken to Powai Lake. When they reach the water, the Ganeshas will be weighted down so that they sink, immersed into the water, and disappear into the bottom of the sea.
Traditionally, the murti were made of clay, which is environmentally friendly. When the Ganeshas sank below the water, they returned to the clay from which they were created. However, as the festival became more popular, the Ganeshas grew in size, making clay a problematic medium. Today, most Ganeshas are made of plaster of Paris. Recently, the government has begun encouraging people to return to clay, especially for private murti.
Along with the large public celebrations and statues, many Mumbaikers also keep Ganesha murti in their homes during the festival. Some do so as an offering to the god in celebration for a newborn baby or other answered prayer. Like the public celebration, when Ganesha is brought in the home, he is treated as an honored guest and must not be left alone. During this time, the family must observe strict vegetarian diets, perform puja three times a day, and make offerings to Ganesha. Most private celebrations do not last the full festival. Most people keep Ganesha for one-and-a-half to five days. At the end of the celebration, Ganesha is transported to the water and immersed.
Today was an immersion day; we saw about five little Ganeshas parading through Powai on our way home from lunch. These were the private Ganeshas, and the processions included children and women.
We also learned today the only thing that will stop Mumbai traffic: Ganesha. Maybe he is the remover of obstacles after all.