As I began to see the pandals – highly decorated three-sided enclosures – being erected all over the city, my irritation began to rise. I so did not want to be in India at this time of the year. The impending crowds, the noise, the music and the traffic jams meant that I was beginning to dread the forthcoming ten days.
In many parts of India, these ten days are devoted to the Ganesh deity – the elephant-headed god. Public pujas are performed, part wood, part tin-sheet enclosures set up with elaborate tableaux from the Vedas and Upanishads, the ancient, sacred texts of India, or from the equally ancient mythologies, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Sometimes, installations are based on more modern, pertinent issues like the environment. At other times cash-strapped mandals or community organisations, simply install a Ganesh idol. Large amounts of money is collected from local businesses, corporate sponsors and ordinary citizens so these ten days can be celebrated in a hugely public way.
Of course each household also brings home a smaller version of this elephant-headed deity, only to immerse this figure of mud and clay, beautifully decorated in rainbow colours, into the river within a day of bringing it home – all done amid great pomp and splendour. This rapid disposal, I suspect, is a much more modern concept for time-poor households. Traditionally, the elephant headed deity would be installed for five, seven or the full ten days before it got its dunking.
Ganesh, the harbinger of good and the destroyer of all evil, is a must in every household shrine and is invoked at all important functions – from the start of any fresh venture, like a new business or a wedding, or to ask for his blessings before the all-important school A levels.
So why was this pushing my buttons?
Rituals and Traditions
As a child, my family, too, celebrated this festival with great enthusiasm, bringing home this idol of mud and clay with its ample pink belly and legs folded in lotus posture, smiling benignly at us all, and we, too, sang chants to honour him and his presence in our home. We ate sweets prepared lovingly by my mother especially meant for this holy and auspicious occasion. The traditional aarti – invocation – performed only by the head of the household, a male member, which the rest of the family members got to join in, in what is essentially a patriarchal tradition.
But after leaving home at the age of nine to study at boarding school, all this faded away and was lost in a distant, hazy past that no longer was important to me.
Or was it?
Immersion – the Grande Finale
On seeing these pandals going up, I raged at the lack of civic sense in digging up huge holes in the roads just to install them, which meant that the already crowded roads became narrower still. I fumed at the late night music on an endless loop. I pursed my lips and frowned at the thought of massive processions at the end of the ten days when, during the grand finale, all and sundry took their clay figurines to immerse them in the rivers of Pune, thereby causing untold pollution and toxic contamination due to the paint, dyes and plaster of Paris used for the Ganesh idols, along with the rest of the regular rubbish that is a must with any religious function in India.
I had already been caught up in the chaos of this festival on the very first day, called Ganesh Chaturthi – the fourth day of the Indian lunar month of Bhadrapad – when I had to drive my ageing father to the hospital because he had chest pains. Road blocks, closed roads, celebrating people everywhere, an already chaotic traffic causing even more chaos as one-ways became free-for-all two-way streets. People, noise, litter and more people everywhere drove me crazy.
The origin of the festival is unknown but became popular with the Maratha king Shivaji and later by the social activist, Lokmanya Tilak. The Ganesh festival has its roots in community spiritedness. Pune, the large city I am currently living in, is the home of these massive ten-day rock-and-roll festivities. While Tilak in the late 19th century urged people to come together publicly for this celebration to circumvent a British law, these have now become a mere symbol of the collective unconscious, ritualistic Indian minds.
The British passed an ordinance against seditious gatherings of large groups of Hindus and exempted the Muslims from this injunction for their Friday prayers. This angered Tilak who, realising that the Hindus had no recourse because their religion did not mandate large religious assemblies like Islam did, decided to install Ganesh idols in public spaces, calling on the people, through his powerful daily newspaper, Kesari, to participate in the festivities.
Over these ten days, there is fierce competitiveness amongst the most important – read wealthy – or most ancient Hindu temples and the various organisers as to which idol is the largest, or which tableau is the best and which temple or organisation should lead the immersion procession at the end of the ten days, turning what is essentially a communal, religious and joyous occasion into a political one.
Speaking to various individuals over these ten days, I realised they didn’t really know or understand why they followed this particular ritual. Most said they did it because it was an annual affair. Some said it was a family tradition, that they were simply continuing, much like Christmas in Western countries. When questioned, almost all, however, said, with deep sincerity, that they would never stop following this tradition.
Then, over the weekend, walking back home after another long day at the hospital with my dad, I beheld a sight that made me stop short in my tracks. There it was, right on my doorstep.
Ganesh Pathak – harmony and beauty
I had been hearing these drums and cymbals as groups of people all over the city had been practising for this very festival for well over eight weeks. This is a very busy time for these pathaks – groups of drummers and cymbalists – who are then hired for religious festivals, starting with the Ganesh festival and ending with Diwali, the festival of lights, which comes a month or two later. It is prestigious for these pathaks to be invited by important temples to perform at their pujas and head their immersion processions at the end of the ten-day celebrations, with everyone vying for pole position.
Huge, these drums are slung across the front of their bodies, with both men and women taking part in the spectacle, practising for hours each evening producing deafening sounds but fantastic rhythms.
Round the corner from where I live, a local businessman usually installs a Ganesh idol for all to worship and honour. [pic] Each evening blaring over loudspeakers, an aarti is performed for the puja. Usually it is done by some local bigwig along with several invitees in white safari suits or the classic Indian outfit of kurta-pyjama.
On the night that I was passing by, one of the drumming pathaks had been invited to perform their routine. I was mesmerised by the creativity, the strength and the sheer virtuosity of the band as they beat out these wonderful rhythms, segueing from one set to another with great mastery. What thrilled me most, giving me goosebumps, was the innate tribalism of the drumbeat. It shook me to the core. It touched something deep inside me, igniting a longing in me that I could not quite understand.
The communality of the entire spectacle also touched me. I have been brought up on communal living. Doing things together, having a common purpose, pooling resources and the coming together of energies – almost for a higher cause – all these things were communicated to me through this immense beating of the drums and the foot-tapping rhythms.
Osho has likened the beat of the drum to our heart beat. And that we all recognise it deep within us as it reminds us of the safety and the comfort of being in our mother’s womb. That connection, that link that ties us to the universal sound is present in each one of us, we have just forgotten it amidst the busy-ness of our lives.
Suddenly I understood why this tradition has been practised year after year since the mid-17th century. Here it was: a sense of community; a joyous coming together of people to celebrate, honour and cherish, driving away feelings of isolationism and loneliness which is unfortunately now more and more prevalent not just in the West, but in India too.
From my time living in England, I have seen how these kinds of gatherings there are so rare. As we lead increasingly isolated lives, we can go for days or weeks without even talking to our neighbours.
I also realised the power of music as a way of bringing people together – hearts beating as one, just like the drumbeats.
So despite all my understandings and appreciation, why does the Ganesh festival still push my buttons…?
Could it be something to do with the mob mentality? With a certain blind obedience to an unwritten ritual? To the collective unconsciousness within us that prevents us from asking essential questions: like why am I continuing with this tradition?
What do you think? How does something similar affect you?