Sitting at my laptop beginning to write this piece, it’s the seventh day of the 10-day Ganesh Festival (known in Marathi as Ganpati or sometimes spelled Ganapati). I hear singing coming in from outside somewhere, devotees from a nearby pandal that I can’t see from my home, but the music drifts in and reminds me I’m in a foreign country that I don’t totally understand. India is captivating me more and more the longer I stay.
I hear clapping. I hear voices uplifted in praise to a beloved elephant-headed god known as Ganesh, among many other names. Ganesh is the god of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune, and is known as the remover of obstacles. Hindus believe he actually bestows his presence on earth during the Ganapati festival each September/October, which culminates in immersing idols in his likeness into the river, ocean or other water body in an elaborate good-bye ceremony until he comes again the following year.
The singing continues. I recognize the tune from our own celebration held at Paradise Society on Ganesh Chaturthi, the first day of the festival Sept. 19. I hear the devotees cry “Moraya!”
I’ve asked what this word means, as I’ve heard it sung, chanted and shouted in exaltation many times these last days. It means, “We can’t wait for you to come back to us, Ganesh,” one person says. “It means something like, victory!” another person tells me. “It’s just a word that goes with Ganesh,” said yet another.
Skeptical of the inconsistency, I looked it up. The explanation I like best comes from a website called Hindu Dharma Forums, at www.hindudharmaforums.com.
“Every year, there is a Ganapati festival for 10 days beginning with Ganapati’s birthday. So, clay statues of Ganapati are made and worshipped for the festival and then at the end, the statue is ceremoniously submerged in a river or sea. When Ganapati leaves people wish Him goodbye and say, Ganapati Bappa Moraya, Pudhachya Varshi Lavkar Ya meaning ‘O Lord Ganapati, please come back quickly next year.’ Bappa means father or lord. Moraya is actually a name of a saint and devotee of Ganapati who lived ~700 years ago. When the statue of Ganapati is submerged, many people have tears in their eyes because they think Ganapati is leaving them till next year, but the truth is Ganapati is always close to the devotee. Moraya’s name said along with Ganapati’s is meant to remind us that Ganapati never leaves our side, ever!”
These last 10 days, I’ve taken part in aarti (worship) and Prasad (the eating of holy food, similar to communion) a number of times of this elephant-headed god. During aarti, devotees gather in front of an idol of Lord Ganesh, sing ancient songs and clap. Since we don’t know the words, we stand back and just do the clapping part.
Hindus have encouraged us to take part, even though we’re not Hindu. There are two hints at this: A) we look so white and Western, and, by reasonable deduction, are not Hindu and B) we are clueless as to what’s happening. But despite those obvious aspects, that hasn’t stopped other worshippers from inviting us to come join them. There are no looks of disapproval or bewilderment. There is nothing but a friendly “Come!” and a gracious sweep of the hand to indicate what we should do or where we should go. Or else our Indian friends are offering us a helping of Prasad.
Xavier, our Indian driver, comes from a longtime Catholic family that celebrates all local festivals, including both Hindu and Muslim. A story in the Sept. 24, 2012 Pune Mirror demonstrates he’s not the only one who does this. On page 3, there’s a small story under the headline “God is one, we just have different names for him.” The story is about a Muslim family in Pune that celebrates Hindu festivals along with their friends. “We are friendly with our neighbors,” the family’s patriarch says, by way of a simple explanation.
Xavier and his wife Elizabeth took us to the city’s center Tuesday night to visit the pandals, or the temporary structures that are created to venerate idols of Ganesh.
I lost track of how many we walked by, but we saw all five of the most honored pandals, whose idols have priority in a scripted procession on the festival’s last day in which the five, in specific order, move to the Mutha River, where they are immersed in a ceremony known as visarjan. (Most idols these days are made of plater of Paris, not clay. In an effort to be more eco-friendly and not put plaster of Paris idols in the river, the city set up a number of immersion tanks as an alternative). In some cases of a permanent idol, it is sprinkled with water and then the face of Ganesh is covered with a cloth for three days. It’s then put back in its permanent place.
Pune is a city of some 5 or 6 million, and Ganeshotsav is one of the largest festivals celebrated. I’ve been in large crowds watching both the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Redskins games, but I’ve never been in crowds quite like this. As we moved through the city, we held onto each other by holding hands or putting a hand on each other’s shoulder so we wouldn’t get separated, as people pressed in from all sides. Only once did I feel a pang that it might be unsafe, especially for our 8-year-old daughter Rachel. This was as we were moving toward an elaborate pandal in the center of town, and the crowd behind us started pushing a bit. Luckily, the pushing stopped.
“Pandal” means shelter or temporary structure. It’s like a stage intended to showcase and honor idols of Lord Ganesh.
The elaborately built, painted and lighted up replica of a Rajasthan palace smack in the center of downtown looked anything but a temporary shelter! I saw it in the early stages of being built, when it was a hodge-podge of bamboo poles and corrugated tin, and watched it take shape.
Other pandals are more modest. One featured a fantastic light show blinking around the elephant idol, with techno-disco type music blaring from a speaker somewhere. Others featured live actors performing a play depicting the marriage of the Hindu god Shiva and goddess Parvati, Ganesh’s parents.
The entire city of Pune transforms itself during the festival, with pandals sprouting up on nearly every corner. These pandals are overseen by a “mandal,” or a group that’s in charge of it. Some of the Ganesh idols are lavish and rich, adorned with real gold and silver.
One night Brian and Robin walked down Baner Road to check out the various pandals and they came across the electrician who works in our society who appeared to be in charge of one particular mandal.
But we live on what’s considered the outskirts of town, and most of the action is relatively tame compared to what we saw in the city’s center Tuesday night.
The dhol drummers performing in front of one pandal had us nearly in a trance. In perfect rhythm, they’d speed up, slow down and take their cues from the tasha (a smaller drum played with sticks that seems similar to a snare drum). You could feel the booming, seemingly from inside your body.
There is a commercial aspect to the festival, with street vendors hawking everything from roasted corn (rubbed with chilli and lime—delicious) to balloons, bangles, clothing—just about anything you can think of. But compared to Disneyland or Black Friday, it’s nothing. At the core of the festival, you see people partaking in aarti or Prasad. They greet the idol with respect, hands clasped together in prayer. The bottom line is it’s a holy, religious festival with a somewhat Fourth of July flavor to it. Or, for those of us in Fairbanks, think of something religious but infused with Golden Days or the Tanana Valley State Fair. It’s kind of like that, only much, much bigger!
All of the pandals, nearly 3,500 of them according to the local paper, moved in a procession that took nearly 30 hours to complete. We ventured back downtown on procession day, Saturday, twice–once in the middle of the day and again at night. In both instances, the procession moved slowly through the streets and it was almost impossible for us to see anything. During the day, we took a friend of Rachel’s along with our own three children. This was probably not the best idea, as the crowds and lack of visibility were too much for the third-graders; we ended up leaving before things really took off. But, in taking side streets to walk back to the car, we witnessed a number of families and smaller groups immersing their idols in small ceremonies, offering a more intimate view.
When we returned again at night, we were minus a few kids. Rachel was exhausted from a sleepover with her friend Niharika the night before. Oldest son Rory felt like he was coming down with the flu, so he volunteered to babysit.
The night scene was more celebratory and loud, and no less crowded.
At this point in the procession, the five top honored idols had long since gone through and other pandals were making their way down the streets, proceeded by drummers and other groups (nearly 90 different drumming groups total, according to local news). One man up in a crane suspended over the street threw down flower petals as the pandals went by underneath him. Dhol and tasha drummers had crowds of people, mostly young men, dancing in the streets. During the processions many people flung a red powder all over themselves.
As we made our way down to the river, we saw numerous idols being immersed, either in the eco-friendly tanks or by men who, for payment of 10-20 rupees, would swim out into the river.
For a few rupees more, perhaps 100 or so ($2 US), a man in a rowboat would go out farther to immerse the idols for worshippers. They dunk the Ganesh three times and then let it go, to be carried away by the fairly weak current.
Where these statues ultimately end up, I have no idea. Some environmentalists were there with signs, quietly urging worshippers to immerse their idols in tanks to help save the river. They seemed timid, perhaps because of the fervor of the worshippers.
I respect religious freedom but I’m practical as well, and understand the limitations of Mother Nature. Without a change, the river someday will cease flowing at all.
Regardless of my personal biases against this practice, I still felt moved watching the immersions, and the poojas taking place. Worshippers were all around us, families and groups large and small. Brian took 700 photos with his Canon that night alone. The paper said over 2 lakh household Ganpatis took part in the public immersions. (A lahk is 100,000). Many more were done privately at home.
We bought our own Ganesh idol a week or so ago and, lacking a “house temple,” put him in an empty China cabinet in the dining room. We ringed it with a garland of fake flowers and picked fresh flowers from the backyard, as Ganesh is said to be particularly fond of red flowers.
So, have we converted to Hinduism? No. When we’ve prayed to Ganesh, we’ve cross ourselves, as Catholics do. Nobody in Pune has ever looked at us strangely or as if we don’t belong because of it. On immersion Saturday by the river, so many strangers offered us Prasad. They didn’t hesitate because of our skin color, or how we looked.
Like the Muslim family who celebrates Hindu festivals, I’m also not so preoccupied about differences in how people pray or worship, the text they follow or what the building or temple looks like where they gather. I like the man’s simple statement in the local paper, “We’re friendly with our neighbors.” That’s good enough for me.