September 15, 2008

The Last Journey of the Elephant-headed God

Two days ago I thought I would make my way to either Girgaum Chowpatty or Juhu on Anant Chaturdashi today, the last day of Ganeshotsav, usually the tenth or the eleventh day of the festival but this year it was the twelth day, to watch brightly painted Ganapatis converge on the beach by their hundreds, maybe by their thousands. No one has ever dared count how many. The numbers, like Mumbai, continue to swell each year.

Later that night images from two years ago reeled out in a slide show, transporting me amidst legions of devotees as they cried out hoarse, ‘Ganapati Bappa Moraya, Phudchya Varshi Lavkar Ya’, exhorting the elephant-headed god to return soon next year as they prepared to immerse him in the seas off Juhu in Andheri.

That monsoon day garlanded idols of the elephant-headed god in all conceivable sizes came from near and far, in auto-rickshaws, in cars, in tempos, in trucks, on bicycles, on hand carts, and on foot. Emotional at the send off families wiped their tears away as male members of the family waded into the sea to immerse the deity who having been given the pride of place in the house graced their lives for eleven days while festivities centered around him. Under overcast skies as competing cries of ‘Ganapati Bappa Moraya, Phudchya Varshi Lavkar Ya’ rent the air I found it difficult not to be overcome by emotion watching scores of families send off the deity into the seas off Juhu in 2006, and off Girgaum Chowpatty in 2005, the latter a sight without parallel for the sheer drama of the festive canvas.

It was at Girgaum that I first saw the Lalbaug cha Raja make his way to the beach late in the evening. I was in the thick of it those two years, hanging onto my camera as I jostled through dense crowds for vantage points. To be swallowed by the multitudes thronging the approach is to be released from the present for a foray into the future as chants rise with the breeze ‘Phudchya Varshi Lavkar Ya’ (Return Soon the Next Year).

The next year, 2007, I could not make it to the seas on the last day of the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations much as I wanted to. The year came and went and I stayed home on Anant Chaturdashi, the day when offices close early to enable employees to reach their homes before festival crowds bring vehicular traffic to a standstill. There were urgent matters that needed sorting out in those uncertain days when I wondered if the overcast skies would ever part anytime soon to let some sunshine in. They did, coinciding with the end of the monsoons in late September.

This year was no different for I didn’t make it to the seas today either, the last day of Ganesh Chaturthi, to watch animated throngs of devotees as they wind down the approach to the beach in their hundreds and thousands, carrying idols of the elephant-headed god decked in flowers. It was pouring outside so I stayed back home.

However I’ve had my share of the atmosphere each day the past eleven days on my way to work and back, passing pandal after pandal at various street corners, home to the elephant-headed god. Put up by political parties these street-corner pandals are public affairs, more an expression of political presence than religious but they serve an additional purpose as well. Everyday folks with no access to private installations of the god and not having installed one themselves back home, step up to these Sarvajanik Ganapati pandals and pay obeisance at his feet for wisdom, good fortune, and prosperity.

Large hoardings plastered with faces of political functionaries graced street corners by the pandal. With street corners awash with hoardings of competing political parties no one was quite sure who had organized the street-corner installation of Ganapati. It mattered little to passing folks who paused for a quick prayer before going their way. Most street-corner installations last until Anant Chaturdashi, the last day of the festival, usually the eleventh day. However, this is not so with many private installations of Lord Ganesha.

Many families immerse the idol in nearby water bodies after one and half days. The duration varies between one and half, five, seven, ten, eleven, twelve, and “even twenty-two days,” a taxi driver informed me the other day as he bypassed an inside lane to avoid groups of festive revelers. “I avoid driving much during the festival week,” he said. “There’re too many traffic jams caused by revelers.”

Passing Matunga he pointed out a Ganapati pandal set back from the road and said, “That’s Nana Patekar’s,” before continuing, “flowers worth 5,000 – 6,000 rupees are delivered to the pandal each day for use in prayers and decorating the pandal.”

“Does he live here?” I asked him, curious to find out if the Bollywood star, known for the temperamental roles he’s essayed over the years, felt at home in the bustle of the street away from tinsel town.

“No, but during Ganesh Chaturthi he is said to come here for the duration of the festival to the Sarvajanik Ganesh pandal he organises, after all this is where he used to live before he became a star,” the taxi driver replied.

I’ve fond memories of the festival growing up in Goa. Schools broke for vacations on the eve of the festival, lasting the entire duration. It was a time to make merry, visiting as many Ganapatis as one could and accompanying an equal number on the days they were immersed in wells. We kept a count of the Ganapatis we saw. But it was in Mumbai that I saw the festival at a scale I had not previously imagined, down to an actual elephant making rounds of the town outside the local railway station this weekend.

Within moments it drew the attention of commuters, one of whom thought nothing of feeding it the lot of apples he must have purchased only a little while earlier.

Children gathered to watch the elephant bless those who sought its blessings, raising its trunk and touching them lightly on the head.

Still others offered the elephant coins which it expertly deposited into the hands of the mahout riding it. As I reached for my shirt pocket to see if I had some change it followed me with its trunk, knowing pockets to hold money. Alarmed as much by the unexpected proximity of the trunk as by its ‘understanding’ of where people carry money I drew the first note I could reach. It turned out to be ten rupees. No sooner had I drawn the note I deposited it in the offered trunk and watched as it expertly steadied the note before curving the trunk up and depositing it in the mahout's outstretched palm.

A Ganesh pandal lay only a few metres away, to one side of the entrance to the local railway station. The significance of the presence of the elephant during the festival celebrating the elephant-god was not lost on passers-by as they folded their hands in prayer to the pachyderm.

Public installations of the deity, also know as Sarvajanik Ganapati, are not restricted to street corners alone. They are also to be found in housing societies.

Members of individual housing societies in Mumbai and outlying suburbs usually come together and install Ganapati in their housing complex, holding collections within their housing society to finance the effort, with members contributing to it. Last week we chanced upon one such housing society on the second day of the festival.

We were in time for, within fifteen minutes of our paying obeisance to the deity, the society members distributed saffron bandanas to everyone in the backdrop of drummers at full tilt before carrying the idol of the deity from the platform where it was installed only a day before, to the back of a tempo carrier where women from the society had gathered to prepare the deity for immersion, having chosen to host the deity for one and half days. There after lighting lamps and placing offerings on either side of the deity society members broke into a celebratory dance to the beat of hired drummers attired in the uniform of their band, their names printed in bold letters to the back. The drummers were local Maharashtrian lads.

In the days leading up to the Ganesh festival this year it was not uncommon to find groups of local youths by railway tracks practicing drumming for the impending festival. I kept a watch for them as the train neared where they were usually to be found. They rarely missed a practice session. They were to be found on city roads as well, going their way. On one such ‘immersion day’ in Dadar, the fifth day of the festival if I recollect well, a taxi laden with drums ferrying drummers to their designated spot pulled up alongside at a traffic signal. I’m not aware of the price they charge to accompany the deity to where it is immersed.

Night had fallen by the time the tempo carrier inched its way forward. We followed behind to the sounds of firecrackers going off and youngsters from the housing society dancing merrily in the lights of the vehicle. The band of drummers would change their beat, speeding up as the dancers caught on to the rhythm, and slowing down to give the dancers some respite before upping the beats again. It would be some time in the night before they reached the spot where they would immerse the deity before returning home. A light drizzle fell outside.

Every now and then on the road outside cars made their way past us. Through the window we saw colourful idols of Ganapati resting in the arms of family members in the bucket seat. Others carried the deity in the open boot of the car, the door raised up. In the days that followed, Mumbai and the adjoining suburbs reverberated to festivities until today, the day of the last journey of the elephant-headed god.

As I sit at my desk keying in this post fairly late in the night, I can still hear the last lot of firecrackers marking the last journey of Mumbai’s favourite god while fervent devotees accompanying the deity chant ‘Phudchya Varshi Lavkar Ya’, exhorting him to ‘return soon the next year’.


Anonymous said...

wow - nice pics... this is wat makes india so unique. elephants in the middle of the road! and woah!

Arun said...

never seen those mass processions that happen in M'rashtra yet. My best memories of the fest are in the form of crackers and Kadubu. The pix/description of the elephant are lovely.

kenju said...

Very interesting, Anil. I love your posts.

Sarah Laurence said...

Anil, I love the title of this post and your description of the festival was interesting. Too bad about the rain. I love elephants, except when they are charging me, but that’s only happened twice. Perhaps we should have offered coins. Are there ever problems with elephants getting spooked by firecrackers or the crowds?

Anil P said...

Bluehues: I agree. Elephants on the road provide that little bit of entertainment, slowing down the pace of life to admire something so elemental as an animal.

Arun: They're too massive to imagine. Thanks.

Kenju: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be able to share them with you.

Sarah Laurence: Thank you. It's been raining continuously. Elephants are gentle.

Down South in Kerala most temples have elephants of their own for use during festivals, and the only instances of elephants running amok are during festivals involving the temple. But such occasions are extremely rare, for most part the elephants are devoid of any aggression.

The next time you can try offering them coins.

Elisa Day said...

Interesting post, thank you for sharing

CoyoteFe said...

So very nice. I could almost feel and smell the crowds on the way to the sea, connected with joy and heart. What a rich word-tapestry you weave.

Lucy said...

What a rich post indeed! I love the curl at the end of the elephant's trunk, and how it knows to eat apples but to pass the money on.

indicaspecies said...

A good narration of the festive season that I experienced in the 90s while living in Mumbai.

I read some place about 160,000 Ganapati statues were immersed in Mumbai alone this year! Could it be that large a number?

Merisi said...

Anil, as you have done so often in the past, you made me feel as if right there, passing pandals erected at street corners. Interesting that some are erected by political parties, more interesting still that at the end they do serve a common good, erasing the mixing of politics and religion. I encountered the elephant with you, and worried you'd lose your camera or your wallet, in the hustle and bustle of the festival.

I am sorry you did not make it to one of the festivals you'd have liked to revisit, and I do thank you for sharing the customs with us nonetheless.

Heartfelt greetings from Vienna!

d smith kaich jones said...

Oh, many, many thanks. For these few moments I was away from this desk, caught up in a far-away festival. A quite wonderful way to begin my workday.

:) Debi

Ken Mac said...

love the name of your blog! And this is wonderful subject matter.

Jeanne said...

your pictures are wonderful and the words you weave among them tell vividly what an amazing experience it was. Thank you so much for you words on my blog, so very true!

Lakshmi said...

Ah ! miss Ganesha in Mumbai..went for one of these to "cover " the same years ago ..after a long time, I went for one of the immersions in Bangalore and stood near the lake watching the ganeshas being pushed and forced to submerge..somehow, I didnt feel like posting anything on ganesha festival this year..

Anil P said...

Elisa Day: Thanks.

Coyotefe: Thank you. It's a pleasure to have you read the post.

Lucy: Yes, it's an unusual curl, isn't it. I wonder how the elephant knows what to eat and what to pass on :)

Indicaspecies: I won't be surprised if the number of Ganapati ststues immersed is bigger than 1,60,000 :)

Merisi: Thank you. The poiltical parties have often used the festival to cement their presence in the localities, and there's quite a bit of jostling for public space to put up the pandals, with rival political parties putting up banners.

The elephant was very gentle :) It's a pleasure to know you enjoyed this post.

Smith Kaich Jones: Thank you :)

Ken Mac: Thanks.

Jeanne: Thanks. It's nice to know you enjoyed reading the experience.

Lakshmi: Maybe they were constructed of Plaster of Paris instead of clay.

Ugich Konitari said...

Delurking . Your blogs are a visual treat highlighting the lives,joys and ordinary-man observations of life as it exists in Mumbai. Enjoyed your write up and details very much. Look forward to more....

Unknown said...

Quick thank you for your comment to my blog last week. We lost power for a week due to the remnants of hurricane Ike blowing through the midwest and I could not reply. Or see a foot in front of my face. I will be back to read more of your posts. Can never resist elephants! And I've never run into anyone who loved The Razor's Edge also. I MUST read more of your adventure.

fugsly said...

Great post, makes me want to travel out there. I love how deeply you described things, gives me a real feel for everything you experienced :)

bobbie said...

This is such an interesting post. We have nothing comparable in our country. Within the Catholic faith, you do find certain neighborhoods, most usually made up of Italian people, who honor and celebrate various of the saints once a year. These are very colorful and full of music and processions in which they carry statures of the saint. They make a regular fair of it, with lots of food from their native land. But there is nothing that I know of that comes anywhere near what you describe.

Anonymous said...

The is something very endearing about your encounter with the elephant. They are remarkably intelligent. Wonderful writing as always. :)

Anil P said...

Ugich Konitari: Thank you. I believe each place is in a state of flux, more so today than at any time before. Recording everyday events will hopefully freeze those instants in time for good.

Distracted by Shiny Objects: It must have been a terrible time straightening up things after Ike roared through. I believe the damage was substantial.

Elephants are a treat to watch, drawing onlookers as much for their size as for their demeanour. The Razor's Edge is among my all time favourites.

Fugsly: Thank you. You must visit these places :)

Bobbie: India's vibrancy is in part to the festivals that not only involve the public imagination but also faith, and when they spill into the streets the atmosphere takes on a different dimension altogether.

I've seen movies and documentaries showing Italians in processions, carrying statues of saints through neighbourhoods. It must be a joy to watch on the ground.

The Ganesh Chaturthi processions are possibly without parallel in the world for the sheer scale of the festivities. It can get taxing for sure, but the streets get very lively for the duration of the festivities with people shopping, preparing the deities, folks visiting homes, the immersion journeys, and the drumming among other things.

Seamus: Elephants are remarkably intelligent. Most animals are endearing :) Thank you.

Gauri said...

You've beautifully captured the spirit of the Ganesh festival through your photographs :) I visited the Lalbaugcha Raja this year for the first time and was completely taken in by the sheer magnificance and aura that the diety beholds.
Nice post Anil enjoyed readin it!


I have never been in Mumbai at this time, but have heard of its significance and the scale on which the festival is conducted.You have really caught the atmosphere with the pictures - both with the camera ones, and your words.

neha vish said...

What a fantastic post. Took me back to Bombay for a brief while. I remember my first Ganesh Visarjan in the city - it was one of the most awe inducing experiences. Though I have to confess that I was really scared ..

B said...

wow. sab kuch in one article! :) and cool info taxi driver gave.. abt Nana Patekar's ganpati place.

megha puNAter" said...

said as it is,i miss the ganesh festival in bombay. lovely post

Anil P said...

Gauri: Thank you :)

Raji Muthukrishnan: You must visit Mumbai during the Ganesh festival. Negotiating the crowds can be trying but then like with festivals elsewhere the atmosphere tides one over with its infectious enthusiasm.

Neha Vish: Thank you. I believe Ganesh Visarjan is getting bigger year by year :)

Red Soul: The bit about Nana Patekar was a surprise to me as well. Later I checked with a friend who used to live in Bombay once, he said Patekar's Ganapati is known for the scale of flowers used. He said it was referred to as 'phool Ganapati'.

Hopefully I can visit it next year.

Megha Punater: In a faraway land it must add a touch of poignancy to the memories.

Linda said...

I've seen a very small version of this in Paris. It was really colorful and interesting.

Coffee Messiah said...

Wow, Thanks for sharing.

It would be nice to get to India one day......

Vetirmagal said...

your blog is very interesting and pleasing. Thanks.

Granny J said...

Thank you for visiting my blog, which in turn led me to this wonderful picture of a Mumbai festival that you painted in words and photographs. You can be sure that I will return!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post as always...and insightful! I loved your pictures, other than the poticial poster. :)

Ugich Konitari said...

I have an award for you at my blogsite ......please do check.

Anil P said...

Linda: Thank you. Nice to know Paris is witness to the celebration as well even if on a very small scale.

Coffee Messaih: Thanks. I'm sure it'll be nice in many ways.

Vetrimagal: Thank you.

Granny J: It's a pleasure, thank you.

Shantanu: Thank you. Politicians have come to become an integral part of celebrations in India at least in public spaces :)

Ugich Konitari: Thank you. This is indeed a pleasant surprise. I did check your post mentioning the same. It's great to know you enjoy reading my posts.

Carletta said...

Wonderful informative post!
The elephant must have been well trained to know where to find money.

Have a wonderful day.

Anonymous said...

So interesting and colourful, such a different way of life to learn about! Thank you for sharing all this, making me feel like I'm there, next to that clever elephant. Thanks also for visiting my blog the other day.

Mary-Laure said...

Thanks for this great trip with you!

Unknown said...

lovely pics..
reminded me of home now..

have u been to hyd during ganesh visarjan day..
its so lovely to watch.. but now its got too many procedures and stuff as we have got only small lakes and one big artificial lake were the idols are thrown away if u dont mind me using that word.
the best is getting the tallest ganapathi for the visarjan.. its just amazing..

Anonymous said...

You write so well. Really like the detailed post with keen observation and pictures at the right intervals. Its like reading a novel which is so interesting that you never want to put it down. Each and every post of yours is breathtakingly beautiful.


(came from chai ki dukan)

Anil P said...

Carletta: Thank you :)

Marja-leena: Thanks.

Mary-Laure: Thank you.

Ani: Haven't been to Hyderabad on Ganesh Visarjan day. It would be interesting to see the festival away from urban centres, where there is more of a familial feel to the whole experience, and a lot more quieter as well.

Vinita: Thank you. It's a pleasure indeed to know you enjoyed reading the posts. Thank you.