>Travel Pictures


Ganesh Festival

September 2007

Ganesh is a figure that is pretty well recognizable as coming from India - the god that has an elephant head. While there are many, many stories about him that won't be discussed here, what is not up for doubt is that he is the favorite god in Maharashtra, the state that Mumbai is in. Because of this immense popularity, the festival season that falls during September was an extremely colorful and loud welcome to the city for us.

People prepare the whole year to welcome him into their houses, and craftsman toil through the summer to prepare thousands (if not millions) of plaster of Paris idols called mandals, gaudily decorated with bright colors and imitation jewels.

These statues are believed to be actual physical manifestations of the god himself, and are venerated widely.

 The special idols (not to be confused with the bronze, wooden, and porcelain statues that everyone seems to already have in their homes and cars) are brought home on one special day - September 15 - for a stay of 1 to 10 days in peoples' homes. They are for sale all around the city, and the really large ones are hauled in trucks, often followed by hired drum bands to help welcome the god to his temporary home.

While he is there, a person must stay awake and with the god 24 hours every day. Ganesh is also supposed to have homage paid and prayers said to him during his visit. Often families will hire a Hindu mystic to help perform these rituals during his stay, such as this man who was at the home we visited

When, however, the god's stay was over and it was time for him to leave, he had a special send off waiting for him. As explained to us, every guest must eventually leave the place he is staying, and that is exactly what the final festival is all about. We were lucky enough to be invited to a coworker's immersion ceremony, to participate in the farewell to Ganesh.
Before the goodbyes can be said, the last prayers have to be said and the last offerings made. The room we were in was full of participants as well as invited guests (spectators), all excited about the prospect to the evening's activities.
 While there was a definite spiritual feeling in the air, there was not an overt emphasis on absolute reverence (especially considering the ceremony was interrupted by a phone call. Was it Ganesh calling? Who knows!)

One of the neat things to see was the multi-religiousosity of all the events. I know that we had heard of things happening in Europe because of Muslim rejection of any sort of images (such as the covering up of all the icons and murals at the Hagia Sofia after the fall Constantinople), but here, there are daily reports of how the Muslims work together with the Hindus during this festival (and even worship before Ganesh). 
It was interesting, then, to see a Sikh paying veneration as well. He is apparently a relative by marriage, but he was right up there with the other worshippers. 

Everyone was invited to participate, so the Stutz's even took a turn during the 'fire and smoke' ceremony!

The holy man really got into the spirit of the festival as well...

and later tied bracelets on people's wrists and handed out fruit to worshippers.

Ganesh was then brought down from his pedestal and placed on the floor, where wild dancing followed. The people lined up, clapping and laughing, moving around him as every so often others would sit or kneel in front of him, sometimes placing their head on his feet. 

We also saw some whisper in his ear, and found out that this is supposed to be a pretty auspicious time to ask for wishes to be granted. Hearing that, Breck made a beeline for Ganesh and had a long conversation with him!

The dancing was made all the more rowdy by the hired band that appeared in the hall. They were really smacking those drums around and were even asked to be quieter by the host a few times! When Ganesh got loaded up and brought outside, then the party really got going. People were whirling and hooting in the parking area, and even passers-by from the street got into the action. 

All the while, Ganesh sat patiently in the back of the car (he had been built specifically to fit in this particular trunk - no pun intended), waiting for his ride to the beach.

We took the easy route to the beach - many of these mandals were paraded all the way - but we drove ours to the public access point. Carrying him out were four guys who had prepared for this evening by abstaining from meat, alcohol, and sex for three days. As they carried him down to the crowded beach, people were shouting and singing all around, welcoming him to the final destination.

On the beach itself, it was a scene of utter organized chaos. Groups were everywhere, praying, making offerings, and bringing their idol into the water. It was crazy and crowded, and apparently nothing at all like the big final ceremony when literally millions of of people crowd Bombay's beaches. There were thousands of people the night we went, but there was still room to move. Not only were there pious worshippers, but hawkers were working the crowds too, trying to make a sale of everything from food and drink to plastic toys. 
Alea and Breck amused themselves quite well making patterns in the sand, while local fishermen untangling their nets were (I'm sure) sighing at the thought of trying to make a decent catch in the middle of the churned up plaster of Paris-choked water.
After the final prayers and songs were said and sung, the departing lord was picked up for his final journey. Making their way across the beach, picking open areas out between groups of worshippers, the idol-bearers headed for the sea.
Wading out into the crashing surf (where every year there are drownings during this ceremony), the guys walked far out across the flat sand to give Ganesh a proper send off. You can just see them between the ladies' shoulders (and they went further out than this).

Finally, when there is nothing  but the eroded remnants of another statue left to look at, the crowd returns for a celebratory dinner. Mumbai bid farewell to its favorite god in grand style this year, and it was a wonderful introduction to the rich religious life that thrives in this massive city.

Ganesh celebration pages: Street lights - Procession - Household ritual and the immersion itself

To the main India page
To the Stutz's Welcome Page