My favourite festival and one that I look forward to all year, especially when I was still living in India, Ganesh Chaturthi celebrates the birth of the elephant God, Lord Ganesh. This festival is made extra special because Lord Ganesh is my ishtadev and I was born during the eleven days this festival is celebrated in Mumbai and so my star birthday is always during this festival. As per Hindu religious books, the Lord Ganesha was born on Shukla Chaturthi during Bhadrapada lunar month which comes sometime in the months of August and September according to the Gregorian calendar.
Since Lord Ganesh is the destroyer of obstacles and the one who has to be worshipped first before any other worship, he is very important in the Hindu Pantheon and from where I come from, the favorite God. If there was a state Lord, I am sure Lord Ganesh will be that for Maharashtra!
Traditionally the festival used to be celebrated at home by installing small clay idols of Lord Ganesh, but during India’s independence struggle, in 1893 after the installation of the first sarvajanik or public Ganesh idol in Pune by Bhausaheb Laxman Javale or Bhau Rangari, Lokmanya Tilak, a legendary freedom fighter praised the celebrations of the public festivities in his newspaper, Kesari, and dedicated his efforts to launch the annual domestic festival into a large, well-organised public event. Tilak recognised Lord Ganesh’s appeal as “the god for everybody”, and chose this particular God as the one that bridged “the gap between Brahmins and non-Brahmins”, thereby building a grassroots unity across them to oppose British colonial rule.
It is also said that in 1870, the British colonial rulers, out of fear of seditious assemblies, had passed a series of ordinances that banned public assembly for social and political purposes of more than 20 people in British India, but exempted religious assembly for Friday mosque prayers under pressure from the Indian Muslim community. Tilak believed that this effectively blocked the public assembly of Hindus whose religion did not mandate daily prayers or weekly gatherings, and he leveraged this religious exemption to make Ganesh Chaturthi to circumvent the British colonial law on large public assembly. The first sarvajanik Ganesh utsav and statue of Lord Ganesh was installed in the Keshavji Nayak Chawl at Girgaum Mumbai by Tilak in 1893. This festival then took off and is a huge festival in my home state of Maharashtra and today is a pan Indian public festival where large and small idols of Lord Ganesh are installed anywhere from 1.5 to 11 days.
On the last day, be it one and a half days, three days, five days, seven days, nine days or eleven days, the idols are taken to a large body of water, be a pond, river or the sea and immersed so that the Lord can return back to his home in Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. Offerings are made to the Lord twice a day with prayers and an arti and the holy offerings distributed to everyone.
In Mumbai, traditionally there will be Ganesh pandals or temporary structures to house the Lord in pretty much every locality of the city. If I think back, where we live in Mumbai, in a one-km radius, I can thinkof atleast 10-15 Ganpati pandals which are of varying sizes with corresponding sizes of the idols of Lord Ganesha.
One such pandal is the one that is hosted by the GSB Seva Mandal, founded by the Goud Saraswat Brahmin community, who have installed an idol not too far from my home for the last 65 years. This is Mumbai’s most famous and richest Ganpati mandal in Mumbai whose idol each year is adorned with gold jewellery weighing around a staggering 73 kgs! This is due to the offerings made by devotees each year because of wishes that have been fulfilled. When I was in Mumbai, I used to try and make it to this pandal every year to pray. This Ganesh idol is only installed for five days and so some years, it used to be a challenge to try and make it, but I would do my best. This idol is always an eco-friendly one, made out of clay and here there is none of the usual recorded music there, instead, traditional Indian musical instruments used in south Indian temples are played.
Another iconic Ganesh idol is the Lalbaghcha Raja or the King of Lalbagh. This is probably the most visited mandal in Mumbai, formed in 1934 and the idol comes from just one family and the design is now patent-protected. This idol draws an average of an astounding 1.5 million people daily when it is installed and people stand in lines for hours just to see and pray to this idol which they believe will fulfill their wishes. Lalbaghacha Raja has cancelled their Ganeshotsav this year in the light of the coronavirus, instead the focus will be on health, with a blood and plasma donation camp held instead.
Only a couple of lanes from Lalbaghcha Raja is the Mumbaicha Raja which is also very popular. This mandal is well known for its new and innovative themes each year, often a replica of a famous place in India. It was formed for the benefit of the mill workers in 1928, making it the oldest one in the area. Even though this Ganesh idol is often very busy and crowded, waiting times can be as little as 20 minutes to a few hours.
Another Ganesh mandal close-by is the Khetwadicha Ganraj, which is considered to be one of the most spectacular Ganesh idols in Mumbai. The mandal was established in 1959 but found fame in 2000, when it made the highest Ganesh idol in Indian history, standing 40 feet tall. The idol at Khetwadi is decked out in real gold jewelry and adorned with diamonds.
The Andhericha Raja in the western suburb of Andheri is what the Lalbaugcha Raja is to south Mumbai. The mandal was established in 1966 by the workers of the Tobacco company, Tata Special Steel and Excel Industries Ltd, who moved from Lalbaug to be closer to their factories. Compared to many other famous mandals in Mumbai, the idol isn’t as towering or imposing. However, it has a reputation for fulfilling wishes. The mandal’s theme is usually a replica of a significant temple in India. This idol is different because unlike other idols which are immersed on the eleventh day which is Anant Chaturdashi, this idol is immersed on Sankashti Chaturthi, which is about five days after Anant Chaturdashi.
Writing this post has made me super nostalgic for the Ganesh festival in Mumbai. In the last twenty years that I have been in Singapore, I have never been back for the festival and now with the pandemic and restrictions, it seems quite unlikely in the near future. Also this year, because of the lockdown and the fact that these idols attract huge crowds, many of the Ganesh mandals have either decided to not install an idol or if they do, they plan to install a small idol. The government has also banned public immersions on Anant Chaturdhashi and so according to a report I read, after four decades, 99 percent of all Mumbai’s top public Ganeshotsav organisers have decided to reduce the side of the idols to a maximum of four feet. It is said that this is only the second time in the history of Ganeshotsav that the festival would be drastically scaled down without the immersion ceremonies, and on both occasions it was due to an invisible disease, the first time being in 1896 when Pune was hit by a killer bubonic plague which claimed many lives.
To everyone who is bringing home the Vighnaharta tomorrow, Happy Ganesh Chaturi to you and your loved ones. May the remover of obstacles pave the way to success for you and yours.
Ganpati Bappa Morya, Mangal Murti Morya!