This Saturday, it was the festival of Lord Ganesh, celebrated on the birthday of the God with an elephant head. Ganesh is the God of wisdom and prosperity. He uses a mouse as his vehicle, the mouse representing our ego and the need to control that ego, has a broken tusk, and loves sweets.
During that festival, statues of Ganesh or Ganesha – some of them as high as 30 meters, which would be about 80 feet high – are installed in street corners and in homes, and those shrines are heavily decorated with lights, flower arrangements, etc.
Everyone is happy to show their Ganesh, and we had young people run after us and invite us to wander into back alleys so we could admire their statue. Of course, we then took pictures of everyone. The wonderful thing with digital cameras is that we can show the pictures on the spot. Everyone loves that, and there is always a friendly jostle as they elbow each other to be able to look at the pictures. My husband has even started printing some of these photos shot in the streets, so he can give them back to the people – usually children and young people – who so gracefully posed for us.
Prayer services – called Poojas – are performed several times a day. After 1, 3, 5, 7 or 11 days, these statues are transported on decorated floats to the nearest river, lake, beach, and immersed.
Why immerse these statues in water? I wondered. Here is what I gathered: all bodies of water (rivers, lakes, the sea) are sacred to Hindus. If you were to keep the statues of Ganesh in your home, or on the street corner, poojas would have to be performed everyday. Neglect is not tolerated. And so, once the poojas are over, the statues are immersed in water.
That last picture shows young people on their way to the lake for the immersion of their Ganesha. This is a joyous affair, and the procession is accompanied by drum-beats, songs and dancing.
As so often, here, in India, I watched all this with mixed feelings. Curiosity and fascination, of course. I love that Indians honor their culture. I love the mystical quality of these traditions. But then, I also looked at these men entering the filthy water of the lake and swimming in it. I looked at the piles of plastic bags on the shore, and I couldn’t help but feel sad. Someone told me that in old times, the Ganesha statues were made of mud, of clay, and when immersed in the water, the mud, the clay dissolved in the water. Earth returned to earth. Same for the coconuts, the fruits offerings, the flowers: all biodegradable. Today, there is a whole industry behind the making of these Ganeshas, and they are painted, and all these statues end at the bottom of the lake, and it’s definitely not good for the environment. Not to mention those plastic bags that contain the offerings to Ganesha. Once the puffed rice, the saffron colored powder, the fruits, etc, emptied in the water, the bags remain there.
There must be a way to strike the right balance. Yes to keeping old traditions alive, but while doing that, remember also the realities of today’s world, one of them being that we need to stop using the planet as a dumping ground. Right now.