Ganesh Chaturthi is the Hindu festival celebrating the elephant-headed god Ganesh (also called Ganpati or Ganesha). Ganesh is one of India’s most well known gods. He is highly revered as the remover of obstacles, the god of new beginnings and the god of good fortune. Because of this, his image is found everywhere in India and he is invoked before the undertaking of any task.
Ganpati, as the festival is colloquially known, is one of my favorite holidays in India (second only to Holi). It is a long festival that completely takes over the city of Mumbai sweeping everyone up in its delightful chaos. It is also the time of year when my son was born. From a young age my son gravitated towards anything elephant. Maybe his being born on the auspicious final submersion day really did create a connection to Ganesh!
Ganpati is celebrated between August and September, based on the moon cycle. Celebrations last for 11 days ending with a raucous celebration and submersion into a body of water on the last day. While celebrated all over India, the most elaborate celebrations happen in Mumbai and throughout the state of Maharashtra. If you are in India during this time, find your way to Mumbai!
Ganpati takes over the city of Mumbai, even before the festival begins. Throughout monsoon, driving through the city you will see workshops a buzz with massive statues of Ganesh in vivid poses, being built by specially skilled artisans. The statues can vary from the very small, less than an inch high to very large at over 70 feet tall. Once the Ganesh idol has been delivered to its ‘owner’, it is then beautifully decorated, sometimes even adorned with real gold and silver!
Once Ganesh is delivered, decorated and ready, a temporary shrine, or mandal is set up in a person’s home (for small ones), on the corner of a street or in large community squares in anticipation of the first day of Ganpati. Most neighborhoods have several within a few block radius, often competing with one another on who has the biggest or best display. The mandal serves as a base for daily and nightly community worship with live music, distribution of sweets and lively conversation.
At the end of the 10 days, on day 11, the statues are loaded up on trucks or pulley systems and paraded through the streets to the closest body of water (such as an ocean or lake) where it is immersed.
Hindus believe that the universe is in a state of constant change, that form eventually gives in to formlessness. The act of immersing the Ganesh idols is a symbolic reminder of this.
Along the parade route, there is live music blaring from loud speakers, dancing, singing of “Ganpati Bappa Morya”, firecrackers and a great sense of excitement and fun. Often all of this is orchestrated with monsoon rains drenching devotees from above.
Even with the traffic snarls and the random throwing of red powder paint when you least expect it, the intricate detail work and individuality of every Ganesh mandal is inspiring and the loud colorful processions intoxicating.
Some mandals are so famous that they receive more than a million visitors per day with more than 5 hour waits just to catch a glimpse of Ganesh and triple that to actually give an offering. I hear that these days there are specially designed tours (also check with the local tourism board) providing quick and easy access to tourists wishing to view the magnificent idols at the most famous centers. In my day, we had to wait in line with everyone else!
Ganpati is big business in Mumbai, with thousands and thousands of dollars donated and invested back into the community. With big business also comes controversy. In recent years, a big push has occurred to return to the more natural way of making the Ganpati idols out of clay and bio-degradable natural materials versus the more modern paris of plaster versions that have taken over.
In Mumbai alone, more than 150,000 statues are immersed! As you can imagine, the water ways and beaches are flooded with debris and idols washing back to shore, causing an environmental nightmare. Even with the environmental impacts of this hugely popular festival, the number of immersions continue to increase every year. Public attention is growing about the importance of more eco-friendly options, which hopefully continues until the plaster of paris idols are a thing of the past!
Tips on Attending a Ganpati Immersion
Attending a Ganpati Procession can be one of the most amazing festivals to participate in during your time in India. It can also be quite nerve wracking for people who are not used to very large crowds.
If you are visiting Mumbai during Ganpati, expect crowded streets and traffic delays (more than usual), boisterous devotees and loud music playing well into the night. Read the tips below to help prepare yourself for a fun night out with millions of Mumbaikers!
- If you are nervous of the large crowds expected on the final day, or are traveling with small children, check out the smaller processions on other days of the 11 day event. Smaller Ganesha statues are immersed every other day of the festival. As you get closer to the final day, the crowds and statues become larger.
- Attend celebrations earlier in the evening, rather than later as crowds become more boisterous.
- Carry few belongings as you will be walking with large crowds of people, and pick-pocketing is always a possibility.
- Water proof your camera and phone. Ganpati occurs during or at the end of monsoon season which means chances are very high that you will be getting wet. An umbrella is helpful if you are standing still, but difficult to walk with in the crowds. Use a poncho or rain jacket instead.
- Wear clothes that can get stained. Excited revelers will often throw red colored power from their vehicles as they move through the procession. Once this is mixed with the rain, it can be difficult to remove from clothing.
- Wear comfortable shoes. On the final procession day, many streets are completely closed to vehicle traffic which means you will be walking a lot!
- Be prepared to eat a lot of sweets! The processions will hand out ladoos and sugary snacks.
- Get ready to sing “Ganpati Bappa Morya” until you are hoarse!
The largest immersions are at Chowpatty Beach in South Mumbai and Juhu Beach in North Mumbai. Smaller processions and immersions can be seen all along the ocean front. For a fun scene but with less chaos, check out the processions going to Lake Powai or Versova Beach in North Mumbai or the stretches of ocean near Shivaji Park and Worli.
Most importantly, go prepared, but with an open heart and mind to enjoy one of Mumbai’s biggest street parties!
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