Ganesh Chaturthi: Recovering the Ecological Roots of an Ancient Festival


 

At first glance, Hinduism seems like an attractive religion for the ecologically minded. It has sacred groves and holy rivers, gods frolicking with milkmaids and farm animals, sages on mountaintops. I traveled to India with this vague impression of Hinduism in my mind, determined to find the intersection of Indian religion, philosophy and ecology. After I enthusiastically explained my mission to a professor at the University of Pune, he shook his head, smiled ruefully, and said, "Just wait until the Ganesh festival."

Ganesh Chaturthi, as it is officially known, is one of the biggest religious festivals in Maharashtra, the Indian state whose capital, Mumbai, is now associated with more violent expressions of religious feeling. A ten-day festival to celebrate the birthday of the much-beloved elephant-headed god (Chaturthi literally means "fourth," and Ganesh's birthday falls of the fourth day of the month), Ganesh Chaturthi is a fascinating combination of piety and partying, consecration and consumerism.

The festival revolves around the worship of Ganesh idols, which are purchased just for this purpose, and -- at the end of the festival -- are immersed in the nearest body of water: the ocean in Mumbai, and the river in cities like Pune. Most households purchase small idols, which become the object of lovingly performed devotional rituals. Meanwhile, neighborhood associations buy huge idols, which function more like communal Christmas trees. Neighbors band together to decorate their idols and display them in large outdoor shrines. A spirit of friendly competition prevails, and each year the idols get bigger and bigger.

Despite the commercialism that has arisen around the festival, it is still a genuinely emotional, deeply devotional event. Families form a fervent bond with their idols and with the god the idols represent. It is this intense religious feeling that provides grounding and continuity to the celebrations of Ganesh Chaturthi. As I discovered, the festival has gone through many changes in its long history, but it has been sustained by an unwavering devotion to Ganesh.

To environmentalists, one of the most important changes to the festival is also one of the most recent. For centuries, Ganesh idols were made of clay; the past decade has witnessed the rise of plaster-of-Paris idols, which contain chemicals like gypsum, sulfur, phosphorus and magnesium. They are decorated with toxic paints. Their immersion leads to increased organic matter and heavy metal content in rivers, and the sheer mass of thousands of idols can divert a river's flow, causing stagnation. In short, the large-scale immersion of the idols is bad news for the flora and fauna of river ecosystems, including the humans who depend on river water for drinking purposes.

At first I was drawn to Ganesh Chaturthi because of its ecological implications. I soon found, though, that to gain an understanding of the festival, I had to study it from a number of overlapping perspectives. Different aspects of the celebration presented themselves in surprising ways as I wandered around Pune and soaked in the festive atmosphere.

 

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One evening, as scorching, dusty day turned into drizzly, thick-aired night, I took a sputtering autorickshaw to the confluence of the Mula and Mutha rivers in Pune, a sacred site and a favored place for idol immersions. The city government, in cooperation with environmental groups protesting the rivers' pollution, had set up a large rectangular tank of water in which festival-goers could immerse their idols. The Municipal Corporation of Pune has embraced eco-friendly initiatives with an enthusiasm unusual for Indian cities. It even set up plastic fencing to block off access to the river. However, the entrepreneurs who facilitate idol immersion made quick work of the fencing, thrusting it aside to make way for the throngs of people who bypassed the tank. Two boats, operated by a small crew of men dressed in red - a color associated with Ganesh for centuries - ferried people out into the river where they could immerse their idols. Some revelers shed tears as they sent their god to his watery home. Back on the banks, families were preparing earnestly for the immersion, huddled around their idols, chanting and praying, decorating the idols with garlands and food offerings. Proud fathers recorded the moment on camcorders and camera phones.

Although there was a steady stream of people arriving to immerse their idols in the Mula-Mutha, it was not the crush I had expected - perhaps because of the light rain, perhaps because bomb blasts in Delhi the night before had dampened the mood. Only when I made for the center of town did I develop another theory for the relatively sparse gathering at the river. Most of the city, it seemed, had finished their immersion duties early and were gathering to celebrate the close of the festival in modern, urban Indian fashion: with thumping basslines from huge speakers, blinding lights from massive stages and wild dancing. Arms flailing and hips shaking, the dancers - all men, as is typical of such public demonstrations - looked more like amateur Bollywood actors than devotees. While I liked to think that the revelers were deep in religious ecstasy (like Sufi whirling dervishes), my local friends told me that they were more likely drunk, or high, or both.

Festivals in India, I came to realize, have a social function that is perhaps even more important than their religious one. The revelers I encountered were largely from lower castes and lower classes (the two overlap with predictable frequency). The much-lauded economic growth of the "New India" has yet to provide benefits for most of these people. Poverty is still alarmingly present even in up-and-coming information technology and education centers like Pune. The success of IT companies in Pune is driving up prices, as gyms and malls spring up to cater to a newly-wealthy clientele; most Puneites, though, will never have the money nor the status to enter these new temples of capitalism, except as employees who cannot afford to live in the newly-gentrified neighborhoods. As noted Indian cultural commentator Shashi Tharoor says, "The rich have no shortage of opportunities to enjoy themselves by themselves, whereas the poor have few outlets and pleasures other than the communal ones." More cynically, one could argue that the festival serves as a bread-and-circus exercise to distract the poor from their plight, and to divert the energy that could become angry protest into blissful dancing. Still, there's no denying that the revelers are enjoying themselves, and it seems curmudgeonly to deny them this celebration under the guise of political righteousness.

No doubt, though, the festival has been politicized: not by left-wing ideologues critiquing its social role, but by right-wing fundamentalists who like to celebrate the essentially Hindu nature of India. Hindutva activists (as they are called) hold sway over two major political parties in Maharashtra, and they make sure the Ganesh festival is tied to their version of Hindu pride. They bristle when environmentalists question some of the more polluting Ganesh Chaturthi rituals. The Hindutva attitude implies that questioning the current forms of the festival is akin to questioning Hinduism itself; this in turn implies the dubious view that plaster of Paris and mercury-filled paint are staples of Hindu tradition. Pace fundamentalists, who attempt to construct an idealized past and a rigid set of rules and rituals, Ganesh Chaturthi is - in true ecological fashion - an ever-changing, malleable, even adaptive phenomenon.

 

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Gods have a way of changing with the times, as do religious festivals. For millennia, elephants have been worshipped as sacred in India. Ancient Indian mythology is marked by dense networks of associations and metaphors, and elephants have a prominent role in these networks. The animals are often associated with water (the element that serves as the source of creation in many myths), with fertility, and with the Mother Goddess (who is herself linked to earth and water). An elephant-headed deity first appeared in India as part of the Buddhist pantheon. Brahmin priests, resentful of the upstart Buddhists who had challenged their religious supremacy and taken their faithful, portrayed the Buddhist elephant-headed deity as a demon: an imposer of obstacles and a hoarder of treasure. Perhaps bolstered by the ancient cult of the elephant, the elephant-headed deity refused to be demonized and remained a popular god of the people. Eventually, he entered the Brahmin pantheon, first as one of Shiva's entourage, then as one of his sons, then as a supreme god in his own right. Thus, the god we now know as Ganesh was born.

When trading began to take its place beside agriculture and pastoralism in the Indian economy, Ganesh became a favorite god of the traders. No longer an imposer of obstacles, he now removed them for enterprising businesspeople. Much more recently, as Ganesh scholar Anita Raina Thapan reports, the elephant-headed god has been portrayed as the father of Santosi Ma, a goddess popular in the urban areas of northern India, and who is worshipped as the protector of harassed modern women. More dubiously, Ganesh has been portrayed as a guitar-playing, jean-wearing kid elephant in the popular animated Bollywood film "My Friend Ganesha 2."

Despite all the changes Ganesh has been through, some continuities remain. Several are evident in the Ganesh Chaturthi rituals. The festival is celebrated on the dark half of the Hindu month of bhaadrapada; this association with darkness connects the god with death, the moon and regeneration - a suitably ecological reminder that death is necessary for all life, and that regeneration and fertility have death and darkness as their preconditions. Even today, Ganesh is associated with water, as the idol immersions make clear. Indeed, the only other Hindu divinity whose idols get immersed is Durga, one of the many incarnations of the Goddess figure in Hinduism - another subtle link between Ganesh and his Mother Earth past.

The immersion of Ganesh idols has a history almost as long as that of Ganesh himself. Idol immersion is first mentioned in the Svayambhuvagama, a sacred Hindu text said to be dictated by Shiva himself, and dated somewhere between the ninth and twelfth century A.D. It is also described in the Ganesh Purana, from around the same period. According to Shri Vivek Godbole, the principal of a Vedic school for Brahmins in Maharashtra, the immersion ritual - like so many ancient rituals and festivals - has its roots in the turning of the seasons. Bhaadrapada falls towards the end of the monsoon, which, even today, Indian farmers rely on as their main source of agricultural water. Villagers, delighting in the monsoon rains, would go to the river and gather bits of clay that had washed up in the deluge. Bringing the clay into their homes, they would worship it, and then return it to the river. It was a celebration of the fertility of earth and water, the regenerating power of the Mother Goddess. As years went by and mythology was superimposed on ecology, the bits of clay were molded into elephant shapes, then Ganesh shapes, and they were kept in the home for longer and longer. Eventually, as the centuries passed, the original, ecological meaning of the Ganesh idols was obscured.

 

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The communal, Hindu-pride elements of the festival have more modern roots. In the late twentieth-century, Lokmanya Tilak, a radical freedom fighter dedicated to bringing down the British Raj, decided to popularize Ganesh Chaturthi as a public celebration. He was the first to call for outdoor installations of large idols, and the first to introduce the large-scale public immersion of idols on the last day of the festival. He even associated Ganesh, as remover of obstacles, with the Indian nationalist movement.

Tilak can be seen as a precursor of modern Hindutva advocates: he wanted a free India, but it would be a free Hindu India. He deliberately chose to popularize holidays centered on Hindu gods like Ganesh, as opposed to intercommunal holidays like Moharram, a feast of Muslim original but - at the time of Tilak - celebrated with equal zeal by Hindus. Much like African-American slaves transmuting their protest into spirituals, Tilak used religious festivals to build the strength of Hindu India at a time when the British were restricting the rights of Indian agitators to meet in public. In the process, he opened up the festival to all castes; Ganesh became no longer just a Brahmin god, but a genuinely pan-Hindu one. Even today, young priests at Ganesh temples insist that there can be no caste restrictions on Ganesh worship. Tilak's stamp on the festival is thus a complex one. He was an opponent of imperial oppression, but also of interfaith celebration, and a deeply conservative Hindu who nonetheless recognized the necessity of democratizing the worship of at least some gods.

Ganesh worship is becoming democratized in ways even Tilak might not have predicted. Although the wild nighttime dancing is left to the Pune men, some schoolgirls here are asserting their right to participate in the male-heavy street celebrations. Perhaps the highlight of the ten-day celebration in Pune is the procession on the final day. A cross between the Macy's parade and an ambulatory prayer service, the procession showcases all of the biggest, flashiest idols. It also features stunning performances of densely percussive religious songs, all played with traditional instruments - a welcome break from the techno that blasts from speakers at more raucous Ganesh events. Traditionally, these songs were only performed by men, but this year, a troupe of girls joined the procession, beating out complex rhythms with skill and joy.

The crowds of low-caste revelers I encountered throughout the festival also attest to the democratized nature of Ganesh. I got a taste of their revelry the morning of the final day of the festival, as I biked down to the train station in an attempt to book a reservation for a later trip. As I weaved through traffic on the clogged highway, I noticed that the other side of road was remarkably traffic-free. I soon saw - or rather heard - the cause of this unusual event. Polyrhythmic drumbeats filled the air, and eventually a small army of drummers marched into sight, followed by a large motorized platform bearing a huge Ganesh idol. I stopped and pulled out my camera, safely separated from the procession - or so I thought - by a large concrete divider in the middle of the road. A foreigner in India stands out, though, especially one with a digital camera, and soon a boy was hopping the divider and running to greet me.

I have yet to master Marathi, the local language here, so the boy communicated to me with a series of enthusiastic gestures. Come on, he gesticulated, join us, take some close-ups! So I hopped the divider with him. He and his friends hoisted me up onto the platform and posed triumphantly for pictures. I snapped some shots while trying to shield my camera from the red powder that was thrown everywhere as a further celebration of the festival. They then lowered me down and brought me to the "dance floor," i.e. the strip of pavement in front of the drums. One by one, they showed me their best dance moves, and laughed, hooted and cheered when I did my best imitation of them. They threw powder at me, at each other, at passersby, all the while joking, dancing and hollering. We parted ways with a recitation of the festival's favored cheer: "Ganapati Bapa Morya!"

Roughly translated: "Oh, Great Lord Ganesh!"

 

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Although the ecological roots of Ganesh and his festival are largely concealed by centuries of mythology, politics and (more recently) commercialism, some groups in Pune are dedicated to bringing these roots back to light. One such group - eCoexist, a company that sells ecofriendly Ganesh idols - was founded by Manisha Gutman, a former member of Kalpavriksh, Pune's foremost environmental advocacy group. At first, artisans were reluctant to resume the production of clay idols; they were more expensive and more fragile. The ephemeral nature of clay, such a strong metaphor for death and rebirth, was viewed as a liability by the pragmatic idol-makers. When they saw the popularity and economic viability of the clay idols, however, they returned to their traditional craft.

Besides selling clay idols, eCoexist works with the local ragpickers' union to collect the flowers that would otherwise be put in the river with the idols. ("Ragpicker" is the name for the women whose job it is to sort through garbage, trying to salvage anything of value.) The flowers are then taken to a nearby jail, where female prisoners dry the flowers and grind them into colored powder that is then used in the Hindu festival of Holi. The women are overjoyed at the arrival of the flowers, an auspicious sign. Although they may not realize it, they are taking part in a new ritual every bit as ecologically sensitive as the original immersion of bits of monsoon-soaked clay.

The eCoexist team presently includes three women whose religious backgrounds are different, but who find common ground in their fundamental spiritual beliefs. Their work helps to raise awareness of the ecological origins of the festival. At a deeper level, the team aspires to rekindle people's love of, indeed their spiritual connection to, the more-than-human world. Religious festivals, with their ecological roots, are one way of reaffirming this connection. According to Gutman, "The response from the public and the government to the efforts of eCoexist has been phenomenal, a fact that shows that Indians are ready to make this change of heart. It is also a sign of the return of a deeper spiritual consciousness in India which includes a slowly growing sensitivity to nature."

The positive approach of eCoexist differs markedly from the gloom-and-doom strategies adopted by many environmentalists both in India and in the United States. Further, while many environmental groups are wary of "God-talk," eCoexist embraces spirituality as a way to explore our bonds with the non-human world. They believe that eco-activists must inspire a change of heart, a feeling of deep kinship with the rest of nature. And what better venue to do this than a joyous festival?

 

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As the ten-day festival neared its end, I headed to a friend's house to get a bit of respite from the overpowering stimuli of urban India. My friend lives in an area of Pune that was, not long ago, a sleepy neighborhood surrounded by jungle; now if any jungle is to be found, it is a concrete one. Still, her family has kept a bit of greenery for themselves in the form of a backyard garden. All was peaceful in the garden as we sat, sipped water, and chatted about elephants and monsoons. The fading afternoon sun sent shafts of light through the leaves of the tropical trees: mango, papaya, custard apple, bamboo. Then came the piercing bang of drums, the shrill squeal of whistles, the echoing of raucous shouts. Yet another ear-splitting parade. My friend's dog cowered in the corner. My friend sighed and muttered, "Isn't this the country that invented meditation?"

This is the paradox of India in general, and the Ganesh festival in particular: in Shashi Tharoor's words, "Whatever you can say about India, the opposite is also true." A festival first devoted to Earth's regenerating powers is now the cause of major pollution; a festival once intensely private and sacred has become a social gathering at times indistinguishable from a rave; a god has gone from Earth Mother consort to Buddhist to Brahmin to pan-Hindu. But now, with the help of groups like eCoexist, he is finding his way back to the Earth.