Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ganesh Chaturthi

Ganesha or Ganpati is one of the most loved among Indian gods. Not only is he the son of Shiva and Parvati, but his elephant head and potbelly make him appear cute and approachable, unlike our other gods in their warrior stances. (The only other God who competes with Ganesha for popularity is Krishna, who is loved for his adorably mischievous smile and good looks!). Also, unlike many of our gods, he is believed to prefer using his brains rather than brawn, to solve problems – another trait which makes him lovable.

As we get ready to celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi, I have decided to write a series of posts about the festival itself and the different stories related to Ganesha. On this auspicious day, I begin with the story of the festival, and how it is celebrated.

Ganesha is believed to be vighnaharta – the remover of obstacles. To him are due the first offerings of prayers to any of our 33 crore deities, for only He can clear the path we have to take to succeed in whatever we do. Though no puja or festival takes place without paying obeisance to him, the biggest festival dedicated to him alone is Ganesh Chaturthi. This festival falls in the month of August/September, and is celebrated with great fervor all over the country.

Contrary to what many people believe, Ganesh Chaturthi does not celebrate the birth of Ganesha. That day is celebrated in the month of January/February, and goes by the name of Magha Shukla Chaturthi  (the name comes from the date based on the Indian calendar on which the festival is celebrated).

Ganesh Chaturthi celebrates the arrival of Ganesha on earth. Legend tells us that Parvati or Gauri, Lord Shiva’s wife and Ganesha’s mother, was a daughter of the mountain king, Himavaan. Earth, was therefore her homeland, and as the story goes, she came for a visit, leaving her husband and son behind. Shiva couldn’t bear to live without his wife, and so he sent his son right behind her to bring her back. Ganesha thus came down to earth where he was welcomed with open arms, and his stay extended to 11 days. Finally, remembering the duty on which he had come, he went back, taking his mother with him.

Of course, the version of this story changes from place to place…..

In most states across India, Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated just for one day, and prayers are restricted to Ganesha alone……

In some parts of Tamilnadu, the festival lasts for anywhere between one to five days, but prayers are again restricted to Ganesha.

In some parts of Karnataka, it is Gauri (Parvati) who first makes her appearance. An idol of Gauri is brought home, or an idol is made by filling a cloth with sand and tying it up tightly, and then decorating it to resemble a face. This is done the day before Ganesh Chaturthi. The next day, Ganesha is brought home, and both, Gauri and Ganesha are prayed to, for the next 3, 5, 7, 9, or 11 days. The number of days the puja is conducted is based on various factors, from the dates to the customs in families! Finally, on the designated day, both, Gauri and Ganesha are immersed in water, symbolically sending them home.

In Maharashtra, a similar custom is followed, but it is Hartalika who arrives before Ganesha. Gauri arrives in Maharashtrian homes a few days later, and leaves on the 3rd day after her arrival.

Customs and traditions might vary, as might the sweets and savories prepared for the Lord, but one thing remains the same – the abundance of love and affection shown to him. He is pampered as you would pamper a loved grandson visiting you just once a year, with all his favourite items. Right on top of the list are the modaks, a kind of dumpling, the shell made of rice flour and filled with fresh coconut and jaggery. Also offered are dhurva grass, a type of grass which is believed to keep him cool!

Special prayers and sacrifices are performed at temples and home across India for Ganesha, but the most interesting celebrations have nothing to do with religion or tradition. More than a hundred years ago, in 1893 to be exact, the freedom fighter Lokmanya Tilak turned what was a homely celebration into one of the biggest public spectacle in the world! He started the first public celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi in Pune with two aims in mind – firstly, to bridge the gap between the different classes and bring them together, and secondly, to provide a platform where people could gain awareness about the freedom struggle and strengthen their resolve for Independence from British rule. Today, there are numerous groups which organize public celebration of Ganeshotsav, as the festival is now known. Traditionally, Ganesha idols were made of clay, so that they could be immersed in water at the end of the festival. Once the festival gained popularity, the idols started getting bigger and bigger, till today, the average height of the public Ganesha is about 15-18 feet! The Ganeshas are placed in beautiful settings, which vary from sets depicting historical events, architectural wonders, or even social issues. The sets themselves draw crowds to the celebrations apart from the Lord himself! It is also a wonderful sight to see these Ganeshas on the road, especially on the immersion day, when they are surrounded by the faithful devotees singing and dancing all the way to the sea, where the Lord is bid farewell, with songs asking him to come back as soon as possible!

These are however, not the tallest idols. Last year, the tallest idol was at Vishakhapatnam, where the idol was over 70 feet high!! Unfortunately, these idols cannot be moved, so the immersion has to take place in the form of fire engines or tankers pouring water on them through their hoses! The festival has indeed adapted to the times!

Over the last few years, people have begun to realize the problems caused by these huge Ganeshas, which are made of Plaster of Paris (PoP). Unlike the clay idols, these don’t completely dissolve in the water, and days after the immersion, parts of idols wash up on the shore, a horrible sight! Awareness of the environment has begun to take root in the minds of people, and more and more people are switching to clay idols again, and even to eco-friendly decorations! It is indeed a re-assuring sight to see a board proudly reassuring visitors of its eco-friendly nature!

The 11 day festival is just beginning today, and on my other blog, A Wandering Mind, I will be taking you along with me, starting with the preparations for the festival, through the festival at my home, as well as around me….. from small, homely festivities to the public celebrations in and around my locality, I shall try to help you experience the festival through my words and photographs. Meanwhile, you can see my posts from last year’s posts to get an idea about what you can expect…

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