What is it about the son of Shiva and Parvati that makes him so lovable? All across India, and in many parts of the world with sizable Indian populations, Ganesha is perhaps the most popular deity in the Hindu pantheon.
Cutting across caste and creed, all sections of Indian society celebrate this cute, pot-bellied God’s birthday – with the possible exception of Ram Gopal Verma!
Ganesha Chathurthi, the ten-day festival in his honor, is celebrated during the month of Bhadrapad, which corresponds to end-August/early September in the Gregorian calendar.
Some sects celebrate his birthday separately on Gandhi Jayanti that falls in the month of Maagha (Jan/Feb). But Ganesha Chathurthi is the more widespread and popular of the two festivals.
Starting on the fourth day (or Chathurthi) of the bright half (or shukla paksha) of Bhaadrapad, the festival ends ten days later on Anant Chathurdashi, the day before the full moon.
Across the land, people bring home an idol of Ganesha and worship him for ten days. The festival is also celebrated in a public manner by various institutions, by setting up public stalls with large idols. This year, the government has restricted the height of Ganesha idols, but they are still imposing all the same.
The worship of Ganesha goes back several centuries, to the Gupta period, during 300AD to 500 AD. The Ganapatya sect, devoted almost exclusively to the worship of Ganesha, emerged during this period and reached its peak in the 10th century. During the 16th century, the sect grew in Maharashtra and is still strong, which is why Ganesha Chathurthi is celebrated with special fervor in that part of India.
Ganesha is a deity of several forms and names. In fact, the scriptures describe thirty-two different forms of the deity. But two attributes are always common – his elephant head and his pot belly. He is also fond of sweets, especially modakas, sweet dumplings stuffed with jaggery and grated coconut. And he likes red, which is why he is generally clad in red and yellow, and is worshipped with red flowers and red sandalwood paste or raktachandana.
With so many forms to choose from, Ganesha idols are made in innumerable styles and poses – including some modern-day twists, like this idol of Ganesha on top of Spiderman. Stan Lee would probably get a heart attack!
On the last day, all idols of Ganesha are immersed in a local water-body. This creates a major environmental problem and huge traffic jams in cities. Traditionally, idols were made of unfired clay and painted in natural colors, and immersed in a pond. Unfortunately, modern day idols are made in plaster-of-paris and decorated with all kinds of toxic stuff. Local authorities and eco-institutions have been trying to drum some sense into people, with little effect.
The festival does have its dark side – there are some people who do extort money in Ganesha’s name and intimidate those who don’t pay up. There is considerable noise pollution caused by loudspeakers blaring all night, traffic issues and public inconvenience – especially on immersion day.
I’ve been stuck in traffic twice, on Ganesha immersion day, and believe me, the experience is traumatic in the extreme.
But overall, Ganesha Chathurthi is a time of piety and devotion, and also a time for fun and entertainment for kids of all ages.
So, have a great Chathurthi. Be safe. Be nice to the environment. And be nice to your neighbors!
Ganapati Bappa Moraya!