Ganpati Bappa, are you now coming to our homes only as an idol?
You must be devastated, too, looking at the way your natural world is being assaulted by your children in the name Ganesh Chaturthi. Ganpati devotees have lost their way. This is not how I was raised to understand religious celebrations. Possible stampedes, Noise pollution, extravagant expenditure on fancy processions, idols as tall as 32-feet high, as if to say, the higher the idol, the deeper the devotion, contaminating life-giving rivers and lakes with non-biodegradable Plaster of Paris (PoP), acrylic paints, dyed paper mache, and even iron rods that eventually threaten swimmers and fishing boats.
All Bappa wanted was an invitation to our homes every year, with a reverent farewell on the eleventh day that ended in a symbolic immersion of the deity in water.
Where did we lose our way? Although the exact origin of the festival is unknown, the occasion was solemnly celebrated in Indian homes for centuries. Bal Gangadhar Tilak gave it an unprecedented public face in an effort to subvert the British ruling that prevented Indians from freely gathering. The festival has grown phenomenally since then.
Mumbaikars alone immersed almost 190,000 statues last year. Unlike clay and sandalwood paste, Plaster of Paris is not a naturally-occurring material; rather, it is calcium sulfate hemihydrates, which can take years to fully dissolve. Most chemical paint contains heavy metals, like mercury and lead, which don’t dissolve at all. Local politicians, who often fund Ganesh statues to garner votes, must show their commitment to a greener India by only backing biodegradable statues.
Religious leaders should condemn the commercialization of this sacred festival and remind the public of its humble origins, and of the spirit of Lord Ganesh.
Annual immersion of Ganesh idols has significantly increased the content of iron, copper, mercury, chromium and acid in water surrounding Mumbai, and other western Indian towns. Indian fishing communities often find pieces of Ganesh idols tangled in their nets, alongside dead mercury-laden fish. Swimmers are often severely hurt by the iron grids and rods that lie stripped naked of the clay that covered them when making the statue.
Imagine feeding fish to your children, knowing it ingested lead and mercury, along with other acrylic paints. It was probably already dead before being caught in the fisherman’s net.
The good news is that unlike industrial water pollution, this kind of water pollution can be managed through effective and widespread grassroots action. I understand certain laws have been made, but most of the Government guidelines – regarding safe and environment-friendly immersions, use environment-friendly clay and natural colours in idols, immersion in artificial tanks and so on – remain only on paper.
If, as devotees, we say ‘No’ to buy idols that are not eco-friendly, or completely bio degradable, can these killer idols exist? We need to stop attaching our love and devotion for Bappa with the size of the idol we bring home. Legend says that the earliest image of Ganpati was fashioned out of sandalwood paste, and replacing it with clay today would be just as symbolic. A little awareness and sensitivity, some participation from local authorities, intervention from religious leaders and politicians can reverse the damages and take us back to a time when festivals only meant celebrating life, and not paving way for death – humans and aquatic, alike.
I hear Goa is the only state in the country where a total ban on PoP idols has not met with a hostile reaction from the artisan community, but they’re still struggling to ban use of harmful paints. Nagpur and Pune showed initiative, but soon gave in due to people’s sentiments and practices. Artificial tanks are installed near immersion sites, but can often not accommodate idols that are over four feet tall. I hear there are fish foods available that can be added to the clay when making the idols. I can see the fish celebrating and feasting too
Why is it so hard for us to understand that the Ganesh Utsav is a time for bringing Ganpati Bappa home, being thankful for his blessings, spending time with friends and family, enjoying ‘modakas’ and other traditional treats, and then respectfully bidding Bappa adieu, hoping for his return the following year. The massive amounts of money spent on the pomp and show can easily be diverted to bringing sustainable joy to millions of underprivileged people. Spreading joy and goodwill, isn’t that the essence of our festivals ?
I bought Bappa home, too, a small 18-inch idol made by my local artisan, simple clay and unpainted. I had my nine-year old daughter paint and embellish the statue with organic natural colors. We made modakas and enjoyed the increasingly popular Ganesh arti, ‘Gajanana’, from the movie Baji Rao Mastani, during its making. The smell of fresh flowers and incense, traditional food and soulful music, I’ve tried to make Bappa’s stay with us a pleasant one.
I bid him farewell in large earthern pot in our backyard, and the dissolved remnants were poured back in the earth. I said my goodbyes with the usual prayer, “Ganpati Bappa morya, agle baras tu jaldi aa….”