Ganesha – more commonly known as the Elephant god is one of the first gods to be prayed and worshipped at any celebration in Hinduism. Only post prayers to him do the main rituals start.
Ganesh Chaturthi – is a festival that celebrates the presence of Ganesha and every year, sometime in the months of August or September, depending on the auspicious days as per the Hindu astrological system, the festival arrives in much pomp and splendor.
In the earlier days, Ganesh festival was more focused as a community festival. A few large statues of Ganesha would be installed, worshipped in common public areas and everyone would be welcome to visit and pray. This was one of the ways of ensuring communal harmony and getting everyone together.
Today, however, scenarios have changed. Ganesha celebrations are carried out by people in their homes. Smaller idols of Ganesha are bought, families get together and the event lasts from a day and a half to ten days, depending on the family and their choices.
It is a festival experience like no other and when you are the host, the experience completely humbles you. You feel responsible for everything, right from the decorations to the prayer ceremonies to the guests visiting and making sure everything works out smoothly.
We have been hosting Ganesha celebrations in our home for eight years now. The first time I thought I wanted to celebrate Ganesha at my home, my parents were kind of worried as hosting the event isn’t a job to be taken lightly. Call it a belief, or faith or religion but it is a concept taken quite seriously in India.
But then, a Hindu priest we believe in gave us the most supportive words. He said “Ganesha is the friendliest of Gods and he will never take offence against anything that goes wrong unintentionally.”
And hence started the journey of Ganesha at my home. Here’s sharing my experience of hosting Ganesha celebrations every year.
The celebratory air begins every year around July, when it’s time to book a Ganesha idol that will be bought home a day prior to Ganesh Chaturthi in August or September. One can always go to the shops on the last day and get an idol but we get ours made from a Non-Profit Organization that makes these Ganesha idols from Paper pulp. One of the first associations to make Eco-friendly versions. Usually, the idols are made from Plaster of Paris – an artificial ceramic like material that is not biodegradable. In olden times however, traditionally, Ganesha idols were made of Clay but these are a rarity now since Plaster of Paris statues offer you a wider option of colors and designs as compared to the clay models.
A week prior to the celebrations, plans are made. Decorations ideas are thought up. (I always opt for fresh flower décor. I am a non-believer of artificial flowers and other artificial décor articles such as card paper and such). Giveaways are planned for all guests visiting to pray. It is usually a small token of our appreciation – a small box that would be filled with sweets, a few chocolates and likes. It is something that we call “Prasad” or “a blessing from Ganesha”. My mother goes into planning mode for the “Modaks”, a sweet that is mythologically favored by Ganesha and is his favorite.
There are many versions to the Modaks. In Gujarati’s (as us), these are made from something called “Churma” which is essentially a mix of wheat flour, sugar and lots of ghee. Maharashtraians – traditionally make Modaks from rice flour and fill them with a mix of fresh coconut, palm sugar and cardamom.
A day before the celebrations, a visit to the local flower market is made. This is one of the best times to buy flowers as you get the most amazing kind of variants and quality. The downside – everything is priced sky high. I usually end up spending a good couple of hours in the people-packed flower market where you usually don’t walk – you get pushed around and you navigate amongst that crowd.
Other “Pooja” or “Prayer” materials are then bought from the market. These are a mix of ingredients that are staples for any prayer ceremony. Items such as some incense, cotton wicks, camphor, some benzoin gum, a mix of 5 varieties of fruits, bananas and a “Prasad” mix composed of sugar pearls, sesame- sugar pearls (called Revadi) and some dried nuts.
We usually get the Ganesha idol on this day on an auspicious hour and place him in a room with a red cloth covering his face. In fact, as soon as the idol is picked up from the workshop, a cloth is placed covering his face as it is a belief that his face should be uncovered only when he is placed on his rightful seat in the ceremony.
On the day of the celebrations, decorations start early in the morning. Flowers find their rightful places in the arrangements, a silken cloth in a bright hue is placed as the backdrop, bright twinkling lights are distinctly placed over everything and in the middle of that, a separate seating arrangement is isolated. This is the place where the idol is meant to be placed once the ceremony starts. A separate table is placed nearby where a red cloth is placed over which a “Swastika” is made using wheat grains. Fruits are placed alongside with a small bunch of bananas (a fruit much loved by Ganesha).
A special “Prasad” is made at home called “Panchamrut” which is a mixture made using Yoghurt, honey, milk, ghee and palm sugar. This is to be used later in all the rituals for praying to Ganesha.
Usually, the prayer timings are early on in the morning. The priest arrives and idol is shifted from the room to the final seating amidst the decorated area. It is finally time for the unveiling. The cloth is taken off and then begins the fun bit. The idol is adorned with flower garlands and other pieces of jewelry. Necklaces, hand-cuffs, crowns are a few ones that we usually use for our celebrations. A small Modak (made by mom) is placed on his left hand extended palm. Hibiscus flowers and Durva grass is laid at his feet. There are stories on why Durva grass is used in all the rituals and why are modaks his favorites.
Another bit of trivia – Ganesh Chaturthi always falls on a no moon day. There is another interesting story associated with this.
The rituals start and the priest gets us to sit around a smaller Ganesha idol that is used for more practical purposes in the prayers. A copper vessel is arranged with a Coconut and Mango leaves. This is called a “Kalash” and is worshipped alongside the smaller Ganesha. A small lamp composed of Ghee and cotton wick is lighted and this is to be kept lit constantly till the day when Ganesha bids farewell and is taken for immersion in water.
The priest commences by explaining the significance of all the small rituals being performed in the prayers. All the family members and a few early guests (mainly neighbours) sit alongside and partake in the rituals. Red threads are tied to the wrists of the family members (somehow this gives a very safe feeling. It’s like you are constantly protected…and I keep mine tied up for as long as the thread doesn’t give away..anywhere more than 6 months even).
After about an hour of the rituals, everyone gathers around for singing the “Aarti” or prayer songs. Even if one does not know any words, they just need to partake and clap on the beats and somehow, the complete process leaves you with an extremely positive energy. The air becomes quite electric and vibrant. Bells are rung as well as small musical instruments.
This is after all what the celebrations are all about, aren’t they? The feel good factor and bringing everyone together.
The day officially begins. Guests start pouring in shortly after – some bring sweets, some bring modaks and some – floral offerings. Everyone has their own personal way of praying to Ganesha. There is judging anyone’s methods or perceptions here. Ganesha is everyone’s God, friend and guide.
It is generally an unsaid belief in our home that the idol of Ganesha should always have some company. So, turn by turn, we family members make sure he is never alone and sit alongside him and attend to all the guests who visit for prayers.
All guests are served refreshments that are made specially for this day along with a serving of something sweet. It is tradition that no one visiting leaves the house without having something to eat.
Nearing lunch time, a platter with everything that is made for our family lunch that day is placed in front of the idol for a while. This is symbolic of serving the god first before we eat. The plate is taken and every family member partakes of a bit of food from that place.
The day literally passes by in a blur as we hardly even get time to eat lunch. Guests visit in large numbers as possibly, every person believes in Ganesha if not any other god. He is considered more as a friend rather than a deity.
An “aarti” or “Prayer” session happens in the evenings when again, friends, family and neighbors – whoever are around, get together and sing hymns and songs in praise of Ganesha. You really don’t need to invite anyone for this. People come by on their own. They consider it a privilege to have made it to an Aarti session.
The day ends there but the celebrations move onto day two – and along with it, comes my favouite part. For the past eight years, it has been a personal ritual that on Day two of Ganesha, I make traditional Modaks from rice flour. These are called as “Ukdiche modak” (it is traditionally a Maharashtrian specialty). These are quite technical to make but they taste absolutely divine and are quite healthy too. I prefer making them on the second day as, the first day is reserved for Mom’s Churma modaks.
The day begins with an Aarti session again post which the day continues with more guests and visitors.
The second day is when we arrange for the “Visarjan”- commonly known as “Bidding adieu to the Elephant God”. Ganesha is hosted usualy for one and a half, three, five or ten days. Most larger communal settings host for ten days post which the Visarjan is done with much pomp and splendor with songs of asking the God to return back soon the following year.
We carry out the Visarjan on the second day at our home. It is usually done in the evening (I try and stretch the time as late as possible). An auspicious time is chosen by the priest for the ceremony. People come by – mostly neighbors and other people who are around and sing the Aarti again. The idol is gently lifted from its seating position and accompanied by everyone is taken to the Visarjan location – usually a water body such a lakes or the sea.
Bombay has many such locations, such as the local beaches, the main ones being Chowpatty or Shivaji Park. These are the prime locations where most of the larger communal Ganesha’s are taken for Visarjan and it is usually an amazing feat.
Our Ganesha being a smaller one, we prefer taking him to a nearby artificial pond specially constructed by the local municipal corporation for such events. The place is pretty well-organized with social volunteers present there assisting devotees with the visarjan process in a smooth process.
Once at the Visarjan spot, the idol is worshipped and prayed to again and then taken for immersion in the water. The idol is dipped thrice in water and then finally immersed. Slogans of “Ganpati Bappa Morya, Pudhchya varshi Laukar ya”..which translates as “ Lord Ganapati is great, please return back soon next year” and everyone present joins in. There are no reservations at all at the time of prayers or the Visarjan process. Anyone present can join in irrespective of whether they are known faces or unknown passerby’s present there.
A small part of the clay from the idol is returned back to the devotee to be preserved till the next year. It is symbolic of a blessing received from the departing god.
A final Aarti is said on returning back home at the empty space where the idol was placed. The final rituals are over and life returns back to normal the next day. However, there is always a void left behind after months being spent in planning the celebrations, the excitement of getting everything ready and the final two days when Ganesha is hosted and the house fills with people – friends, family and the happiness around. There is something extremely positive in the air when Ganesha is hosted and you actually need to be around to feel it.
While every home has their own way to welcoming and hosting Ganesha, I wanted to share some of my experiences around him and that is how this post happened. I wanted to acquaint people with the smaller parts that go on in a home during Ganesha celebrations and the post highlights most of them. Although it would literally be impossible to write about all the eight years – yes, I do remember every part and every surreal experience I have had in those eight years but then, penning all of them down would need me to write a book. Instead, the above is a gist (well, a little long one, I agree) of it.