Ganesha and Nationalism

Mumbai, the capital city of Maharashtra is called the “city of dreams” or “Mayanagri”, a byname gained over the years not just because it offers limitless opportunities for the Indian citizens across the states, but also for people across the borders. And when does the City of Dreams wake up? When the Lord of the City comes home in a 10-day extravaganza. As a native who is technically not a localite, it is somewhat a phenomonon to observe a blanket of vibrant fervor enveloping the people and the entire state of Maharashtra as the days wind up towards the start of Ganesh Chaturthi.

Interesting fact: It is said that eyes are the way to your soul. The statement is true for the Gods even. Once the idol is installed in the venue (public or private), the eyes are marked as part of a separate ritual, thereby bringing the divine soul into a clay statue.
PC: The Hindu

Just as Ganesh Chaturthi is popularly called as Vināyaka Chaturthī, or Vinayaka Chaviti, the deity too has multiple names. Ganesha, who is the lord of wisdom and good fortune, is known to be addressed by 108 names. The name Ganesha is a compound Sanskrit word which means ‘lord’ (isha) of a ‘multitude of people’ (gana). And the popularity is not just limited to India, but has spread worldwide. In fact, in countries like Nepal, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Lord Ganesha is widely known and worshipped as the popular ‘Elephant-headed God’ or Gajanan.

The famous 91-year-old Akhil Mugbhat Lane Ganeshotsav Mandal, or popularly known as Girgaoncha Maharaja celebrates this idea of ‘unity in global diversity’ while hosting Ganesh Chaturthi amidst the bylanes of Girgaon. For the last 21 years, the Mandal has proudly focused on crafting idols of Lord Ganesha across India and the world, signifying the spread of Hinduism since ancient times. A notion very similar to Ashoka and his spread of Buddhism isn’t it? Two years of pandemic later, this year, the country of choice is Indonesia.

Influenced by contact with ancient India, Hinduism and Buddhism spread through the island before the 4th century CE. The first major principality arose in central Java at the beginning of 8th century. Its religion, centered on the Hindu god Shiva, helped to spread Hinduism to the interior of the island…. Around 10th century, the center of power in Java shifted from central to eastern Java with the emergence of Hindu states.

James Minahan, Ethnic Groups of South Asia and the Pacific: An Encyclopedia

Mount Bromo, an active volcano of Indonesia, is located at a height of 2329 meters in the East Java province of Indonesia. In the Javanese language, Bromo means Brahma. According to the local Tenggerese Hindus, the worship of Ganapati never stops here. Even if there is an explosion here. According to the rituals of Yadnya Kasada (a 14-day festival), an offering is made to the 700-year old Ganesha idol located at the crater on the top of Mount Bromo along with the holy trinity of Hindu mythology. So what makes Girgaoncha Maharaja special? Well the 6-tonne, locally sourced, eco-friendly statue is created in-situ by the artist. Since a country is often selected as a theme of choice, embassy dignitaries representing that country are often upon as a honorary guest to perform the aarti.

There’s a strong belief that Lord Ganesha will protect them against the calamities, problems and sufferings, also imparts the popular monikers Vighnaharta and Vinayaka. And after two years of enforced lockdowns, this belief has been strengthened in multifold with the way people have come out to celebrate in the streets of Mumbai. But this was not the case always! While history documents earliest instances of Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations back to the times when Satavahana, Rashtrakuta and Chalukya dynasties ruled, i.e. from 271 BC to 1190 AD, historical records suggest that Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations were a significant legacy of the Maratha empire under the reign of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. It was continued during the rule of Peshwas, for whom, Lord Ganesh was a family deity. However, the festival was exclusively celebrated as a family affair until 1892. In fact, during the 1800s, Muharram was the biggest festival in Mumbai which was widely participated by all religious sects in the country. Around 100 taboots were set up in Pune alone. The communal riots of 1893-94 ended all public gatherings. This was a matter of concern especially when the country was immersed in colonial rule and handful of people were striving to build on the Indian spirit of Nationalism.

A Moharram procession in Pune in 1892. Lokmanya Tilak can be seen in the centre at the bottom of the picture.

Ganesh Chaturthi in its current form was introduced in 1892, when a Pune resident named Krishnajipant Khasgiwale visited Maratha-ruled Gwalior, where he witnessed the traditional public celebration and brought it to the attention of his friends, Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari and Balasaheb Natu back home in Pune. As a freedom fighter, Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari, saw potential in this festival and installed the first ‘sarvajanik’ or public Ganesha idol in his home or ‘wada’ located in an area called Shalukar Bol in Pune. As a first public idol, there was a key feature associated with the idol – the idol of Ganesha depicted the deity killing a demon, a far cry from the usual calm and composed demeanor of Lord Ganesha. This was a symbolic representation of India as a nation, fighting for its freedom against the evils of colonialism.

PC: Google

This move by Shrimant Bhausaheb Rangari soon gained national traction when freedom fighter Lokmanya Tilak praised his efforts in an article in the iconic newspaper Kesari on 26 September 1893. ‘Father of Indian Unrest’ as popularly called by the colonial rulers, Tilak used the inspirational momentum of Rangari to set up the first and oldest mandal— Keshavi Naik Chawl Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Mandal at Girgaum.

As the ‘God of the masses’, he popularised Ganesh Chaturthi as a national festival ‘to bridge the gap between the Brahmins and the non-Brahmins.’ He installed a large clay idol of Ganesha in a public place and started the 10-day celebration. Established in 1893, the Shree Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Sanstha continues to bring a similar-looking two and half feet idol, ordered from the same sculptor family for the last 4 generations, every year during Ganesh Chaturthi without using any loudspeakers or dhol-tasha.

The occasion served as a meeting place for common people of all castes and communities, slowly evolving into a religious and social function, embedded with cultural programmes and nationalistic speeches. Even Muslim leaders participated in these annual celebrations and delivered speeches, exhorting the countrymen to fight for freedom. In fact even today, the Christi Bandhav Samaj representing the East India Portugese settlement of Mumbai are invited to perform the arti as a testament of continuing the tradition. His participation in Muharram processions also showed him how to involve the wider society involved in the procession of bringing the Gaṇapatī home; the sthāpana and celebration in a public place; and visarjana also happening in a public water body. The sheer process of gathering charity from each and every Hindu home, even if it was just ten rupees, so that it would not be preserved to a selected few thereby making every individual an equal stakeholder in a public celebration.

Lokmanya Tilak thus started the institution of Gaṇeśa Utsava Samitis for organizing and celebrating the festival throughout the length and breadth of India in order for there to be some organized activity on ground. The competition between the Gaṇeśa Utsava Samitis has made sure that there is a Gaṇapatī vigṛha in every street of many north Indian cities when the festival arrives. Idols were made only from mud, collected from rivers, lakes during the period of 1892 to 1992, and the main idea was to spread awareness about a free India. The transition to Plaster of Paris (PoP) only began a little over 22 years ago.

An interesting timeline developed showcasing the ‘Indian spirit’:

  • 1893 – Tilak decided to bring the festival to then Bombay, where the first and oldest mandal — Keshavi Naik Chawl Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav mandal — was set up at Girgaum in 1893.
  • 1890-1920 – Cultural events like dance dramas, musical nights, and religious gatherings were organised with central themes such as independence and nationalism.
  • 1940-50 – While the festival rituals continued to be simple, themes related to the first and second World War were depicted during the festival.
  • 1960s – The festival took a political turn post-independence, with increased focus on the Hindu culture — Mahabharata and Ramayana were enacted in plays, and reflected in essay writing and drawing competitions in addition to dance programmes over the 11 days of the festival.
  • 1970-80 – Black-and-white war films were the highlight of the festivals. Themes revolved around the China and Pakistan wars, and nationalism.
  • 1982 – An umbrella body for mandals was formed after pressure from the state government regarding increased conflicts between different groups. First count of total Sarvajanik mandals in the Bombay was 1,340 up to Mahim (suburbs did not exist).
  • 1995 – Count goes up to 3,000 Sarvajanik mandals.
  • 2008 – Number increases to 5,000. By 2012, there are 6,500 mandals and 11,756 by 2016.

Festivals are the last stand of a culture. It is only during these public festivities that we still feel the community spirit enveloping the city. I barely explored all the areas of Girgaon and all the mandals hosting the grand celebration, but this was a unique way of exploring and capturing the true spirit of Mumbai.

Note: This was a curated walk hosted by Khaki Tours as part of the festival specials. You can join the other city walks organised by Khaki Tours, but until next year Ganesha special walk will not be available.


Related (and not-so related) Posts:


Maharashtra

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