Ganesh & The Globe: An Eco-Friendly Ganesh Chaturthi

September 15, 2007
Aditi Nadkarni

Ganesh Chaturthi is one of my favorite festivals. Even now, away from home I can still remember the eve of Ganesh Chaturthi when the beautiful Ganesh idols would be welcomed into homes and residential communities. It marked the beginning of the festive season leading up to Diwali.

In Bombay, a lot of Ganesh idols are made by the humble artisans whose workshops come to life in the days leading up to the festival. The colors range from the orange hues of the majestic Siddhivinayak or the ornate, little Ganeshas all dressed up in pink dhotis and golden crowns. The Ganesh stays in the house like a much-loved guest. The homes that welcome the idol constantly carry the scent of incense and camphor. A corner of the house where Lord Ganesha sits looks all lit up and decorated. There is the rare abundance of modaks, the sweet cardamom flavored dumplings with a coconut filling that melts in your mouth. And then one day amidst melodious aartis and impassioned cries beseeching Ganpati Bappa to come again next year, the idol is immersed into the sea.

When this tradition first began the idols were made of clay which when immersed in water would dissolve, returning the spirit of this deity to the depths of nature. But lately, especially in Bombay, this festival has gained commercial significance. Public celebrations have created a competition where communities are seen vying each year to hoist the biggest idols on their pedestals. Enormous funds are gathered by the locals and the largest, most colorful of sculptures is put up, much like an exhibit. While this practice has helped cultivate a sense of community, the idols themselves are no longer made from environment friendly clay. The murtis (idols) that are placed for the visual delight of the crowds are now made from Plaster Of Paris.

Plaster Of Paris is easier to mould and the several intricate patterns that go onto a Ganesh idol are easier to carve on this material. Moreover, the increasing demand for Ganesh idols and the large sizes that are so popular make the artisans look towards the cheaper option. Plaster Of Paris is much cheaper than clay but unfortunately less soluble in water. As a result the Ganesh idol that has been treated like a beloved houseguest by so many faithful devotees, sits at the bottom of the ocean, slow disintegration of the plaster releasing toxic elements into the water. The chemicals used in painting the idol contain hazardous mercury and cadmium metals. As the magnificent four arms, golden crowns and loving brown eyes of the elephant god crumble into the seawater, the ocean's flora and fauna suffer from the sudden increase in acidity and toxicity of the water. For years this issue has been tap-danced around to protect religious sentiment. But the urgency of protecting the environment should probably hold more importance and urgency than people's religious sensitivities. Surely, educated men and women understand that to abuse the divine gift of nature is in no way a means of paying obeisance to a deity.

Those whose religious sentiments are hurt when it comes to protecting the environment have never taken a walk along the beaches in Bombay a day or two after the immersion (Anant Chaturdashi). A collection of pictures by Manish Vij shows the large disfigured, broken, scraped and dismembered Ganesh idols that float in with the sea debri onto the shore. A municipality truck arrives, gathers this debris like it would gather garbage and disposes it. Along with this debris are dead fish killed by the toxins and the high acidity of the seawater. So much for religious sentiment.

The Ganesh Chaturthi festival is a time when communities unite and celebrate together. Nobody wants to lose out on the festive occasion. But finding a way to be kind to the environment while indulging in the festivities is a responsible thing to do. There are always devotees who want to have an environment friendly Ganesh Chaturthi and wonder what their options are. There are various options to buying a large Plaster Of Paris idol. In fact, Wikipedia outlines a few easy and feasible solutions to addressing this issue:

<blockquote>"1. Return to the traditional use of natural clay idols and immerse the idol in a bucket of water at home.
2. Use of a permanent idol made of stone and brass, used every year and a symbolic immersion only.
3. Recycling of plaster idols to repaint them and use them again the following year.
4. Ban on the immersion of plaster idols into lakes, rivers and the sea.
5. Creative use of other biodegradable materials such as paper mache to create Ganesh idols.
6. Encouraging people to immerse the idols in tanks of water rather than in natural water bodies."</blockquote>

The Girgaum area is famous for skilled artisans who use traditional and environmental friendly clay to make the idols. There are famous Ganeshotsav mandals that choose to make creative Ganesh replicas from flowers, paper mache, coconuts etc. The Ganeshotsav mandals can choose to give out a prize for the one who comes up with the most environmental friendly design for a Ganesh idol every year. Families can buy a smaller, clay Ganpati for their home. A small idol can be prayed to. Faith should not be incumbent on the size of the idol, should it?

Commercialization of religious festivals likely has a positive influence in nurturing communal sense but when the celebration ends and the environment suffers, people need to evaluate this problem and treat it like their own. After all, Lord Ganesha would not want the beautiful gift of natural resources to be exploited and abused in this manner. Surely our devotion should not be blind towards God's fine creations in our zeal to uphold his idol.

Aditi Nadkarni is a cancer researcher, a film reviewer and a poet; her many occupations are an odd yet fun miscellany of creative pursuits. Visit her blog for more of her articles and artistic as well as photographic exploits.
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September 15, 2007
02:49 PM



i recall that jinnah's' mentor gopal krishna gokhale revived ganesh chaturthi in maharashtra...but when i visited tilak's birth place in ratnagiri i learned that it was not gokhale but lokmanya tilak who revived it...

In 1893, Lokmanya Tilak transformed the annual Ganesha festival from private family celebrations into a grand public event. [157] He did so "to bridge the gap between the Brahmins and the non-Brahmins and find an appropriate context in which to build a new grassroots unity between them" in his nationalistic strivings against the British in Maharashtra.[158][159] Thus, Tilak chose Ganesha as a rallying point for Indian protest against British rule because of Ganesha's wide appeal as "the god for Everyman."[160][161] Tilak was the first to install large public images of Ganesha in pavilions, and he established the practice of submerging all the public images on the tenth day.[162]

tilak opposed gokhale initially...jinnah defended tilak in a case...but he was imprisoned for 8 years...upon release tilak joined INC...alongwith gokhale and jinnah...to fight for swaraj...

end digression!

ps: the idea of bio-degradable ganesha is a noble one indeed:)

Savani Tatake
September 15, 2007
03:22 PM

Absolutely agree with you..

September 16, 2007
12:50 AM

Aditi, what you have mentioned is fine but it has more to do with initiatives taken by the populace. Clay Ganeshas painted in vegetable dyes don't sell much because people usually ask for colourful ones, the ones that use artifical colors and enameled ones. To an extend the the demand for 'bright' idols has stopped artisans from taking orders for eco-friendly Ganeshas. Yes, this is a fact. Don't you think so ?

Deepti Lamba
September 16, 2007
01:10 AM

In Delhi many of us as children stopped bursting crackers after being told by a NGO group at school that the crackers were being made by children.

Kids are more passionate about environmental matters and I'm sure if kids are informed of the harm these Plaster of Paris Ganeshas are doing they will be more vocal and insistent their communities;)

September 16, 2007
05:09 AM

A good one. There was big debate on what to do in Hyderabad. And as usual, God won! The husain sagar is extremely polluted but the devout Hindus made sure they kept the tradition going- they wanted to keep dumping the statues into that landlocked lake.

And when some environmentalists objected, they were rubbished as marxist-communist Hindu haters! (sounds familiar, heh!)

So, they continue dumping it into the Husain sagar. All marine life are now dead, and therefore it started to stink and become highly toxic- seeping into water tables. I guess a million diseased kids is something Indian can afford- after all, it would 'hurt our sentiments' otherwise!

Happy India!

September 16, 2007
05:12 AM

Surely, educated men and women understand that to abuse the divine gift of nature is in no way a means of paying obeisance to a deity.
Beautifully put!

September 16, 2007
06:46 AM

Aditi, why don't you send this same article -its very apt- to a newspaper, too? It may reach a lot of people buying POP idols who do not blog.

Aditi Nadkarni
September 16, 2007
12:23 PM

Thank you all for your comments!

Temporal: Yes, the practice was first started by Lokmanya Tilak to nurture communal sense when under foreign rule. I think it was an excellent means to cultivate unity among people during those times. Over the years this practice has gained so much popularity and I personally think that the only reason is because people like this...being together, the festivities, the change that comes over their city when the festival approaches.

Not to digress but you wanna know something else that is interesting? As a Bombayite I am particularly proud of the fact that my Christian and Muslim friends were as enthusiatic about Ganeshotsav as I was being a Hindu. We would all get together and tour the city to look at all the creative Ganpati idols and the other exhibits that accompany the idols.

Read this astonishing excerpt from Wikipedia. you will be very surprised.

"However, there are examples of Muslims involved in Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, such as the Shri Sarvajanik Ganesh Mitra Mandal at Shri Sunder Kamala Nagar, King's Circle. As of 10th September 2005, a Muslim heads this particular Ganesh mandal (a small group that organises the local celebrations), which was founded by Wilson Brooks (a Christian) some 24 years ago"

Isn't that amazing? :)

Savani: Thanks!

Tanay: Thank you for the comment.

The expert artisans of Girgaum who work only with the traditional clay murtis are very famous. Their idols are not only beautiful, sturdy and decently sized, they are eco-friendly and adhere to tradition. If a few people, especially families decided to use these idols instead of the cheaper plaster of paris ones, they would be doing a greater good. I don't disagree that there are always people who choose commercialization over tradition and propriety but my only hope is that by reading this article some of them will change their minds.

Deepti: I agree 100%. In one of the schools in Thane, a suburb outside Bombay, when the children heard of the environmental hazards of a Plaster Of Paris idol, they decided to make a clay idol for their yearly Ganesh Chaturthi festival in school because the school refused to pay extra for a clay idol. They got together and made the idol, painted it and decorated it. That is true faith, I think. It was a beautiful idol. I wish I could remember the name of the school. But I do remember being touched by the fact that children acted more sensibly compared to adults.

Sujai: Thank you! Honestly, I don't think God ever wins :) If he did people would have the good sense to pick nature and the health of our globe over a man-made idol. There are miracles of nature all around us but humans choose to put their faith, their money and their focus into an idol expecting miracles to happen. If there is a god somewhere (and I hope there is :)) he would be disappointed.

I am hoping that by seeing the pictures from Manish Vij's collection people will realize what is truly hurting their religious sentiments. It is not the government or the envirnoment conscious people, it is their own stubborn attitudes that are hurting their religious sentiment. Otherwise we wouldn't see dismembered Ganesh idols lying along the beach like trash. The government didn't do that. They did.

DesiGirl: Thank you so much :)

Annamma: I think I will try and send it to a daily. Hopefully the TOI will find the good sense to address a noteworthy issue versus all the socialite parties they chronicle in their dailies :)

Meanwhile I urge you readers to help me spread the word and get people to see the pictures and the rationale.

Thank you all for your comments.

September 16, 2007
02:37 PM

The pictures are horrific Adi. I was in Bombay for only one Ganesh Chaturthi and saw the celebrations: the loud music, the gulal throwing, the dance, the flowers, the styrofoam pieces and all the use of electricity. Its similar to the senseless waste of energy,plastic and paper in the US during Christmas. People can be selfish.

People who claim to have their "religious sentiments" hurt when considering the environment don't really care about faith or religion...they just want a pretty, big idol for a few days of entertainment. And then Ganesh is forgotten.

Priya Rao
December 28, 2007
01:14 PM

Hey Aditi.. thats a good thought. I know in Pune they recycle the idol every year. Its sad that people in Mumbai are not taking this serious issue into consideration. I myself is engage in a Ganesh Mandal in the locality and we have a clay idol which is easier to dissolve.

I hope next year brings some change and the mandals eaither make clay idols or recycles as u suggested.

Good thought..!!

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