Flushing down divinity: An eco-anthropological perspective on Ganpati festival
As a student for cultural anthropology, religious rituals mean an essential part of my studies. I never imagined, though, stumbling right into one of the biggest festivals of the year directly after my very first arrival in Mumbai. Being the latest intern at AES, though, this particular festival held a couple of very interesting observations and conversations in store for me. All the more so, as these days the experience of Ganpati still lingers in this city. Long after the last god has been flushed.
Bang-bang go the bass drums. Snares crack like machine gun fire through the night. Echoes of chimes ring between each beat and a faint melody colors the whole huge cacophony a pale violet in the dwindling light of the urban evening. It's Ganapati, the festival of the god who wears that very same name. Others know him by Ganesha, Vinayaka, Vighneshvara or Pillai.
He is the lord of wisdom and intelligence, the remover of obstacles and the god of beginnings. As such people celebrate him 10 days a year in the most various ways of worship. They ornament his idol with flowers, fabrics and turmeric powder, "feed" it, bathe it, chant prayers, and practice prostration or puja.
Nowadays, these small forms of puja seem to drown in a cataclysm of mass-celebrations around the time of Ganapati. Public statues, made of plastic and construction material, are erected all across the city and revered by a much bigger number of people. Performances are being held in front of the statues, music is being played - digitally or manually, people dance, sing, drink and lose themselves in celebrations around this 10-day-event.
There is much good to be said about Ganapati. It is an openly festive time presenting itself in an unconditionally positive character. From an outer perspective those ten days even seem to deconstruct traditional roles and imageries and to let people enjoy themselves in an almost anarchic fashion, partying, enjoying themselves, and for once lowering culturally put on masks.
At last comes the so-called Ganapati Visarjan, the immersion of the very idol that has been revered and celebrated for the last couple of days. And this is where Ganapati turns dirty - in the best cases. The statue is lowered into the water, by different means, and completely immersed. People cheerfully say goodbye to their god and ask him to come again soon next year. Ganesha is believed to thereby leave worldly realms and return to his divine abode. This concludes Ganapati.
The newer, dirtier festival
Except it really doesn't: Visiting the sites of immersion on the next morning you would find uncountable icons, washed back to shore contaminating the beach and water, piles of dirt and waste, and plastic pieces scattered all around the area. There have already been numerous researches on the effects of Ganapati Visarjan on the ecology of rivers and coastal areas; even Wikipedia dedicated a separate chapter on it in their article about Ganapati. Reduction of oxygen levels, acidification through high amounts of heavy metals dissolving into the water, and a general environmental pollution because of all the plastic parts contaminating the shores and rivers are some ofthe most alarming concerns researchers and environmentalists have put forward in this debate.
For me as a becoming environmental anthropologist there are a couple of very intriguing thoughts connected to this phenomenon though: Since Ganapati idols were traditionally made of clay, environmental concerns are relatively recent. Accounts of Ganapati festivals dated around 50 years back do not mention environmental issues at all and generally speak of entirely dissolving clay figurines.
According to some sources, clay also carries a religious meaning. As a product of organic remains, it inherits their potency of life and is thus believed to be an ideal worldly body for divine beings. In the case of Ganesha, it also commemorates his creation by the goddess Gauri who is said to represent mother earth and to have made Ganesha out of her own skin. It is surprising and a little tragic to see this idea completely lost in the efforts to create more impressive and modern-looking idols. While these most certainly cause a bigger audience and spectacle, they seem to fail to capture the personal relationship those worshipers would want to experience to their god.
The questionable purity of Ganpati festival: A bystander’s perspective
On the other side, though, there is the site of immersion. Culturally speaking, water very often stands for a means of purification and serves as a symbol of life. Water cleanses people and places, and washes away their worldly contamination. For India there is a certain point to be made about rivers, as well, since they signify places of religious activity and spiritual potency. Wandering alongside and around them, for example, was, and still is, an important type of pilgrimage and spiritual advancement. There are plenty of other rituals connected to rivers and their surroundings even today, so there seems to be little doubt about their importance in India's religious landscape.
Naturally, these religious water bodies attract the processions of Ganapati as promising sources of divine power and, consequently, spiritual benefit. Still, the paradox remains: Huge plastic statues are descended into the water that is considered to be spiritually charged. These immersions contaminate the water up to a point at which it is grossly visible to the naked eye. As I watch the mesmerizing spectacle of lowering one of those huge idols into the water, I wonder: Wouldn't the assumed divineness of rivers and sea shores be immensely reduced by the sheer amount of profanity dropped into this holy dumping ground?
Maybe people deliberately close their eyes to the amount of damage they are producing. Maybe it is a question of setting priorities. Maybe they are just too optimistic or plain ignorant about the powers of current and regeneration in rivers and sea.
There is one final argument to be made against the use of toxic and non-dissolving icons during Ganapati, though. Because one common ground in any celebration of Ganapati is this: Ganapati Visarjan is a fare-well to Ganesha, may it be happy or sad; a goodbye to something that has been intensively ritualized and worshipped as the temporary abode of god. -And you just wouldn't want your god to be lying around in the toxic dirt of a desolate shore on the next morning, would you?