After a couple of years of subdued celebrations, the Mumbai crowds are back out in force bringing more and bigger idols – but with a greater awareness of their environmental impact
The orange shirts of hundreds of lifeguards dot Juhu beach, lit up by the glare of floodlights as they wade in and out of the sea. An estimated 30,000 people flocked to Mumbai’s beaches and riverbanks this week to immerse idols of the elephant-headed god Ganesha as part of the 10-day Hindu festival of Ganesh Chaturthi
The crowds were back in force after a subdued couple of years of the pandemic. But despite the lifting of restrictions on public gatherings, many devotees still opted for ceremonies at home or in artificial ponds. The change also suggests a growing awareness of the environmental impact of the festival.
Eco-friendly clay idols made by My Green Ganesha
Traditionally, idols are installed in pandals – temporary altars built by neighbourhood committees – some of which attract thousands of devotees. The idols are then carried in a procession to be submerged in water, a ceremony that represents the cycle of life and death. In Mumbai alone, hundreds of thousands of statues are immersed each year.
The Girgaoncha Raja Ganesh idol is eco-friendly, made from clay and weighs 3.5 tonnes. It will take 24 hours, and up to 60 volunteers, to carry it to the ocean on the final day of the festival, where it will be immersed
But environmental activists have for years pointed to the pollution caused by the ritual. Most idols are made from non-biodegradable plaster of paris, and the paint contains toxic substances such as lead and mercury.
“It’s a poison that spreads in the water. Obviously that’s going to affect marine life and biodiversity,” says Debi Goenka of Conservation Action Trust.
The Naikude family’s idol is immersed in an artificial lake in Mumbai by lifeguards
The Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC), Mumbai’s city council, has addressed concerns by creating artificial lakes. So far this year, more than a third of the 155,000 or so idols have been immersed in one of the 162 ponds across the city.
Vijay Vishnu Naikude submerged his family idol on the fifth day of the festival. “We used to immerse our idols at Versova or Juhu beach. But then we thought, let’s do something different,” the 42-year-old says. “Mother Earth had given all this for us, so we should not harm her.”
Naikude’s neighbourhood also installed a pandal with a 3 metre-high Ganesh.
“We were the first pandal to immerse our idol in the artificial lake. Now many others are following us,” he says.
The Naikude family performing a puja, or prayer, to their Ganesh idol
Both statues are made from eco-friendly materials, a mix of tissue paper and banana-leaf. And they are not alone. The third most-visited pandal in Mumbai this year is made of clay and weighs 3.5 tonnes. Organisers estimate that it will receive about half a million devotees over the 10 days.
“Every year we are seeing an increment in terms of people who are moving towards this,” says Sanjay Wagh of My Green Ganesha, which manufactures clay idols. “People are getting much more literate about global warming, about the things that can be recyclable,” he says.
Vijay Vishnu Naikude in front of his community idol, which is made from eco-friendly materials and will be immersed in an artificial lake
Students perform a street play on the importance of an eco-friendly Ganesh Chaturthi and a woman is sprayed with foam in the procession to the beach
In June, the BMC banned plaster of paris idols, but retracted the policy 10 days later, saying it would instead be mandatory to immerse domestic idols made from plaster of paris in the artificial lakes.
But when official guidelines were published before the festival, there was no mention of restrictions. A BMC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed no restrictions were being enforced. Instead, citizens were being encouraged to opt for artificial ponds.
“They can say yes, they are making the effort, all the idols now that are being immersed are eco-friendly. But who’s going to check at the end of the day?” says Goenka. “So they get away with this kind of greenwashing.”
A plaster of paris idol is immersed in the ocean at Juhu beach
With Maharashtra state – of which Mumbai is the capital – in political crisis, Goenka believes the decision was politically motivated. “The last thing the politicians want is a law and order issue. So they will not encourage the police to take any action that might endanger their political survival,” he says.
Goenka believes increasing commercialisation has reduced the religious reverence for the festival.
The remains of a Ganesh idol on Juhu beach
“The festival was actually very low key and a very religious thing when it started,” he says. “Then, once that commercial element got into it, the biggest guy was the winner, the loudest guy was the winner.”
Naikude’s pandal hosts community events and donates profits to local schools. The efforts, hopes Naikude, will help to educate young people on Hindu culture.
“To celebrate the festival is not important for us, but to deliver a message through this platform is very important,” he says.
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