Today marks the end of the 10 day Ganesh festival in India. Where else would you experience the exuberance at its colorful best than in the city of Pune where it all began as a ‘Sarvajanik’ (public) festival? Every year we would celebrate the festival in our home in Singapore. We would be thrilled to bring home the idol, adorn and worship it amid friends and keep up with the rituals that would heighten our spirits.
I have always had fond memories of the same from my most impressionable years, growing up in Mumbai. My brother and I would team up with a bunch of friends and tour our suburb in length and breadth witnessing the sky high idols that formed part of public celebrations. Those days, donations or ‘vargani’ collected from residents living around, backed by the support of some local political party would fund the festival. These days MNCs have given it an entirely new high with their sponsorship. Banners of Amazon and Telenor and tens of other brands line the roads all the way to the stage seeking blessings.
We never brought home the idol at mum’s place. Not everyone in Mumbai does. But every condo (society or colony, that’s the term used) we lived in, did have one. And the ten days would be filled with performances – both sports and cultural and feasting on modaks, dressed up in shiny clothing and jewellery. Of course it had its flip side in the noise decibels surpassing any acceptable levels accompanied by sleaziest Bollywood numbers and drunk men swaying their intoxicated bodies in processions of immersion. Even anything as much as a mere touch by one of these perfumed souls would stir up vengeance.
Then, for over a decade, I lived with memories in Singapore. Honestly, I never felt I missed out on much. But after moving back to Pune, and witnessing the festivities first hand, I felt overjoyed. First up, Pune is the cultural capital Of Maharashtra. Given its glorious past, the festival looks a tad different here. You can spot a Ganpati in almost every home, in the condos, while the largest idols are displayed as exhibits at Public Mandals both as work of art and part of religious beliefs. Last but not the least, there is the Lord that represents the economically backward sections of the society. Despite waging a war each day to fight circumstances to make ends meet, this time represents a harbinger of joy to every soul. After all, traditions and culture do not differentiate between the rich and the poor. They help each one of us escape the drudgery of life.
The common string that gropes every person in, is the Dhol Tasha Pathak, where Navvari or Saree clad women participate in equal numbers and spirit as men. Another significant part of the festival is the street plays that are staged by various groups at Sarvajanik Mandals. Most plays meander around Shivaji as the central theme. I don’t remember witnessing anything like that in Mumbai. Not sure, if things changed over the last 15 years or so.
And the festival isn’t a mere measure of people’s faith in the God. It also means big business and immaculate planning. There is road closure, safety, availability of electricity 24/7 and a display of immersion procession or Miravnuk that are nothing short of Jhakiyan presented on Republic and Independence Day.
6-9 months ahead of time, idols for the biggest exhibits begin to take shape. 3 months before the actual celebrations, Dhol Groups begin to beat up the music (sometimes challenging our eardrums and competing with the volume of television sets). And barely a month before the festival can commence, temporary stalls show up in every nook and corner of the city lit up with ornate idols ready to visit your home. People are spoilt for choice with the beautiful God available in different forms and material including the most gorgeous ones carved out of Plaster of Paris or the slightly less beautiful but more suitable to save the environment made with water soluble clay or made out of soil or paper or other recyclable material. Then there are fascinating workshops that help kids and adults create their own idols.
Next up, the market looks all festive, adorned with Rangoli, decoration, fresh flowers, lights and Pooja Samagri to cater to the millions bringing home Bappa. And Mithai (sweetmeat) shops are cluttered with Modak packets stacking all the way up to the ceiling. The air is filled with energy and joy. Decorations also form quite the highlight of the event. Every household plans on themes and works around a special background for Bappa. The more enthusiastic families involve children too. I believe this if where the seeds of fondness to carry the baton of traditions and rituals through their generation are sown. It feels like one of the best times of the year. Every member in the family gears up to welcome Ganpati, the Lord of Wisdom. Amid Gaja Baja and the feeling of love, we bring home our favourite Lord, chanting Ganpati Bappa Morya!! Mangal Murti Morya!!
At home, my helpers and I have always started the day real early to clean the house and make special Prasad – Steamed Modaks as a warm welcome. Prayers are followed by delicious food and friends and extended family visiting for Darshan and Haldi Kum Kum (a way to socialize during festivals). Evenings are super fun with some new cultural presentation in the condos. The 10 days seem to whisk away in celebration.
This year, I enjoyed being all dolled up in a Saree on most days; something I missed over the years in Singapore. Visiting newly found friends and enjoying Modaks while skipping dinners became a sort of ritual.
And then came the most interesting part of it all. Touring Pune on foot, the land of Peshwas and Shivaji, it felt like a tourist to experience the depth of celebration with some of the biggest and most beautiful Ganpatis overlooking the devotees. After ages, did I experience festivity in its true sense. I missed my brother and my friends. Unlike most people that love the lights, we started out at 6 in the morning for a good view without choking ourselves in the sweat of thousands of others on a similar mission. But we were pleasantly surprised to find half the city already queuing up in the best of clothes and jewellery. Vendors were up displaying their wares on the street to make a quick buck. There were fresh flowers and garlands and Rangoli and sweets and accessories ranging from traditional to Halloween masks and such. I wonder how many devotees would have the foresight to pick up deals on Halloween in the midst of an early morning Ganesh Darshan. There were even people carrying new borns to seek blessings for a beautiful life ahead. Faith can make you do really crazy things sometimes.
And then there was this clan of new generation Selfie Shooters, turning their backs to the Lord to capture Him in the background while they updated their FB, Twitter and Instagram profile pics. Did I miss mentioning those clad in Marathon Tees taking Selfies with the God?
Policemen dotted the area making sure people were safe and festivities ran smooth. I really wonder how they would manage in case something seriously went wrong. Each Ganpati lured thousands of devotees. Restaurants and eateries serving breakfast were running overfull at the runner up position after Ganpati to attract the masses. A long wait in the queues and a dozen selfies later, people get naturally drawn to the Garma Garam Misal, Vada, Upma, Pohe and such.
Pune’s first vegetable market called Mahatma Phule Mandai looked lovely in the morning sun. Sprawling with fresh greens, the Mandai boasted of one of the most beautiful Ganpatis swinging away in the backdrop with Riddhi. The Victorian architecture brought back memories of Lau Pa Sat in Singapore (a busy food court bustling with people of all races, in the heart of the city in recent times. For a couple of years, the place formed a major landmark for Indian tourists as the movie Krishh shot one of its jump sequences there).
It’s been a good 10 days; those that reminded me of the real meaning of celebrations I enjoyed growing up with. And today, as the city immerses itself in the Grand Finale, I watched processions on TV and on the streets. Amid the omnipresent Dhol music, I saw men and women dressed up to their very best shouting Ganpati Bappa Morya!! Pudhcya Varshi Lavkar Ya!! I saw them dancing, playing with colours and oblivious of spoiling clothes in the drizzle of the rain and the wet mud that covered the ground. I saw them immersed in today, not worried about tomorrow. Something people in developed countries never stop doing. The city seems to be on a high today.
While I was reminded of the processions I watched ages ago with my Mum and brother, sometimes from our window and at others by waiting on main streets just to catch a glimpse of some of the best carved structures by mankind, I realized my children were not as keen or interested as I was. To these NRI-borns, the Dhol meant noise in exactly 5 minutes and the Gulal-colored adults with babies in arms seemed absolutely unacceptable. They quickly left the room to continue being indulged it their play and cartoons oblivious of the fact that these are the very impressions they would carry years from now and someday document or share in a way socially acceptable during their youth.
As I pour my heart out today, it feels good to have relived the many moments from an era gone by; something I never realized would be so rewarding and fulfilling to witness in a city that was once foreign. As Ganpati departs today, idols of Goddess Durga make it to the markets for a final coat of paint before the country engages in fasting, Yagnas and dancing over the nine nights of Navratri.