Festivals of India: Ganesh Chaturthi

Today is the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi, which celebrates the rebirth of Lord Ganesh, the Hindu god of wisdom, prosperity and good luck and the remover of obstacles.

Hubby and I usually travel home to Mumbai to celebrate the occasion with his side of the family. Unfortunately this year we could not make it, and in writing this post, I am hoping to recreate some part of the celebrations for ourselves, as much as for the readers.

Many people may recognize Ganesh (or Ganpati. He is known by several names) as the Indian “elephant” god. The most popular legend behind Lord Ganesh is that he was created by Parvati, wife of Lord Shiv, and asked to stand guard while she bathed. When Shiv attempted to enter the door, the child, not knowing who Shiv was, prevented him from doing so, thereby incurring his wrath. Shiv ordered his armies to attack Ganesh, but the child was so strong that he defeated all the Gods… till finally, Shiv severed his head. Thereafter, to appease Parvati, a repentant Shiv affixed the head of a dead baby elephant, on to the child’s body and infused life into him. And christened him Ganesh, the Lord of all Gods.

Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated with fervour across many parts of India, especially in Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, etc. Till we got married, I had only ever seen the festival being celebrated in movies!

Idols are brought home (or set up in community areas), placed on elaborately decorated platforms and worshiped. After 1, 5, 7 or 10 days, they are immersed in the waters of a lake, river or the sea.  This ritual is symbolic of the cycle of creation and eventual dissolution in Nature.

My in-laws take turns with another uncle and aunt, in hosting the event. Irrespective of where the celebrations are held, the scene in each household is similar, year after year. The day starts with a lot of hectic activity – getting dressed early and making last minute preparations for the puja, as various relatives start arriving (no less than 9 sets of uncles and aunts, several cousins and nephews & nieces!). The morning is spent with one of the male members of the family offering prayers to the idol, along with an uncle designated as the pundit. The aunts meanwhile busy themselves with crafting colourful modhaks (rice flour dumplings with sweet coconut filling), an art at which I have failed to graduate beyond apprentice level. The cousins just hang around, chatting, trying to help (but not much!) with sorting a thousand stems of durva grass, which is used for the puja.

Everyone then gathers for an aarti, and we offer pedas and flowers to the deity and seek his blessings. This is followed by a lunch of vegetarian preparations like varan bhaat, masale bhaat, vaal bhirde, puris, etc. traditionally served with a very specific arrangement on banana leaves, and eaten while seated on the floor. Over time, this has been adapted to a more practical buffet-style lunch.

The late afternoon is spent resting or playing card games (usually Flash, though the cousins like to mix it up a little and play some rounds of poker and blackjack too. For some reason it is the only time I EVER seem to have any luck with card games and end up making some money ;-)).

As evening rolls in, everyone changes into festive finery, preparing to make visits to others’ houses to pay respects to their deity and/ or receive visitors who would come to pay homage to ours. Pedas are typically offered to all visitors as prasad, along with snacks like steaming batata vadas, crunchy chaklis, spicy chivda, etc.

Once the last of the guests have departed, the entire family once again gathers for the evening aarti, followed by dinner.

The next day involves pretty much a similar routine till late afternoon, when preparations for the departure of Ganpati begin. There is a short aarti and then some of the uncles carry the idol out of the house, and in a car, for visarjan in the Arabian Sea at the Chowpati beach. Another round of prayers is offered at the beach, the entire area resonating with songs of the multitudes, entreating their beloved Lord Ganesh to return soon the next year (Ganpati Bappa Moriya, Pudhchya Varshi Lavkar Yaa). The idol is carried into the sea by one of several men offering this service (for a small payment), while we all try to catch the last glimpse of our Ganpati before he fully submerges in the water, while munching on prasad of coconut pieces.

The evening merriment involves an elaborate dinner featuring mutton curry and fried fish, plenty of alcohol (a very family-specific “tradition” :-)) and of course, continued camaraderie among all the family members (which to me is one of the most endearing aspects of this celebration!).

Happy Ganesh Chaturthi!

P.S. Photos in the second and third galleries have been taken from other sites, to which I have included links in this post. Perhaps you might be inspired to try one of the recipes!