Ganapati is not a lord of subtleties. Among all the gods in the Hindu pantheon, Ganapati festivals are celebrated with boundless zeal and energy. The festivities dedicated to the elephant-lord are loud, rambunctious and quite boisterous. Evidence for the same can be found in the manner in which Ganesh Chaturthi festival is celebrated across India, especially in Maharashtra. The city of Mumbai is the epicentre of the festival; by rough estimates, there are around 14,000 major Ganesh pandals that dot the length and breadth of the city, with some idols towering over 25 feet in height. The festivities usually start with a bang, with the veiled idols being taken or driven to homes and pandals all over the city accompanied by pomp and revelry. And the culmination is on the 11th day when the idols are immersed into a lake, pond or sea in a much grander procession.
This year though, things are pretty different. Just like everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the festivities. It has been a very unusual and muted Ganesh Chaturthi celebrated tempered with anguish and trepidation. A month or so back, the state government of Maharashtra had issued strict guidelines defining how the festival is to be celebrated. There were limitations on the size, gathering, and the manner in which the visarjan would be conducted. Whatever hope there was of some normalcy, it was shattered by the ever-galloping number of COVID-19 cases in India. The festive spirit was dampened, and many pandals and societies decided not to play host this year. Even the ones that were bringing home Ganesha this year would do so in a very subdued manner. Some of the more prominent pandals that are famous for their ostentatious celebrations decided to indulge in social work, setting up blood donation or plasma collection camps.
An inclusive festival
One of the most compelling aspects of Ganesh Chaturthi happens to be its inclusiveness. The elephant-god tends to bring people together, as people gather at the various pandals and housing colonies to celebrate the fest. This spirit of the festival had persisted quite like the way Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak had envisaged back in the 19th century, when he promoted the idea of celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi on a collective level, rather than closeted individual ones. Yet, even when people bring Ganapati to their homes for 1.5 days, three days or even five days, there's a public aspect to it -- as the friends, neighbours, colleagues will visit the home to partake in the festivities. In short, Ganesh Chaturthi is not meant to be a private affair and could not be celebrated as one. That was the truth till this year when all that changed.
For the past many years, my home has been one of the thousands that host the elephant-lord for 1.5 days. In the months preceding the festival, we were not sure if we will be able to celebrate it. The biggest issue at hand was the quarantine rule. In June there was a case in my building, and for 15 straight days, the main doors to our wing were barricaded, and we could not step out. The Arogya Setu App continued to display rising numbers in the 500m and 1km vicinity. How could we bring Ganesha home, if we were locked in our own?
The second big issue was that of safety precautions. Could you trust the artist who is crafting the idol? Could one 'sanitise' the idol with alcohol-based sanitisers? And won't it be risky to go to visarjan like other times, because of the crowds? These and many other doubts were swirling in mind. One good outcome of these concerns was the sheer spike in Eco-Ganesha; idols that were made out of the mud that could either dissolve in water or be converted into a potted plant. Ganesha idols made from 'shaadu maati', a form of clay, were pretty popular and much in demand. Fortunately, having an eco-friendly idol was never a choice for us, as we had shifted to it years back.
Finally, Ganesha did arrive, and despite all the permutations and computations, we were able to partake in the festivities. It was mighty odd, not to have anyone visiting the home, not even the neighbours, but then virtual communication replaced the real-world connection. Darshan on Zoom meetings or WhatsApp video-calling became a part of the whole festivities. The visarjan was done in one of the artificial pond, one of the many created by the municipal corporation for the same. Not surprisingly, there weren't even a quarter of the number of visarjans that take place during normal times. The implication was quite clear, just like the various pandals and the housing colonies, a vast majority of individuals had chosen to skip the festivities, and the rest did so in a staid manner.
An eco-friendly edition
Oddly, this Ganesh Chaturthi was not only the most muted but also the most environment-friendly. All the factors contributed to make this year's festival the greenest one -- ever. Over the past couple of years, there has been a rising consciousness in regards to the ecological impact of the festival, but much of this has been centred around the idol. Almost every year, newspapers are filled with post-visarjan pics of water bodies that are polluted beyond measure or the fragmented parts of the idol strewn across the beaches. This has led to a sort of movement for eco-friendly Ganesh idols, one that is made of clay and devoid of any artificial colours or additives. Yet, much of the eco-friendliness around the event started and stopped with the idol. Indeed, an idol was an important part, but there were a whole lot of other factors that also need to be factored in, to assess the EIA of the festival honestly. A couple of years back, I had written about how we need to move from eco-friendly Ganapati to Net-zero Ganapati.
To give an illustration, let us take the most famous Ganesha pandal in Mumbai, the famous Lalbaugcha Raja in the Dadar area. The idol towers at over 15 feet, with the one in 2019 standing at respectable 20 feet. The idol is made from POP or plaster of Paris, as the dimensions of a tall idol cannot be created in clay. But beyond the environment-unfriendly idol, there is the bit about the paraphernalia that goes along with the festivities. Last year, the theme was based on Chandrayaan - 2. India's moon-rover was set to make a rendezvous with the lunar soil on the day of the Ganesh Chaturthi, and this prompted the theme replete with several dummy astronauts handing near the idol, with huge LED screens displaying inter-galactic images like that of Earth, Moon to the solar system. Little wonder then that the Lalbaugcha Raja attracts record number of visitors; it is estimated that some 1.5 million people visit this Ganesh pandal daily during the 10-day festival.
Now consider the CO2 emissions that emanate from Lalbaugcha Raja pandal, namely, constructing the massive archways, the huge HVAC, the decoration, the security set-up, etc. Add to that, the emissions that accrue from a million and a half people visiting the pandal, their emissions in travelling and so on. Finally, you have the visarjan, which is a 20-hour procession covering 8 km from Parel to Girgaum Chowpatty. Millions partake in this procession.
And, Lalbaugcha Raja is just one pandal; the city of Mumbai has some 14,000 major Ganesh pandals and thousands of medium ones. The environmental cost from all these pandals and individual celebrations will be staggering.
Sadly, the inclusive ethos of the festival has been replaced by an ostentatious display of money and power. Take the case of the Goud Saraswat Brahmin (GSB) Seva Mandal, Matunga, Ganapati that took out an insurance cover of Rs 266.65 crore. The idol was covered with gold ornaments weighing 68 kg, and some 350 kg worth silver had been offered at the GSB pandal. There seems to be a race among the major pandals, as to which one will attract the most crowd, garner the most significant donations, get the most eye-balls, and so on. There was a Marathi film released almost a decade back titled Morya that touched upon how vested interests had commercialised the festival. Many people wonder if the Vinayaka, or the supreme lord, would himself be pleased by this extravagant and splashy display carried out in his name.
In that context, Ganesh Chaturthi 2020 was the most environment-friendly one; fewer pandals, muted display and technology (virtual darshan) cutting travel-related emissions. This year, the beaches won't be littered with broken idols, the water bodies won't be choked by thousands of idols, there won't be tonnes of plastic waste to be picked up every day as people discard bottles and food packets. Wonder if we will return to our normal environment-unfriendly ways next year, who knows.
On a personal note, I did kind of miss the zest and zeal of the Ganesha festival. Yet, somehow, I am not too sad about missing it either.
Shashwat DC is Founder Editor at Sustainabilityzero.com. With deep interest in history, and mythology, he is also a passionate champion of the environment & bio-diversity. Using his keyboard, he highlights issues related to sustainability, ESG, CSR, and sustainable development.