In India, Lord Ganesha happens to be one of the most popular deities and everyone seems to be in love with this cute, pot-bellied elephant god. Naturally, Ganesh Chaturthi is quite a big affair in the country. The occasion sees pious worships to Lord Ganesha, the deity of prosperity who is also believed to the remover of all obstacles, and also joyous celebrations in honour of the divine being.
Ganesh Chaturthi celebrated all over India; it is most elaborate in Maharashtra, Goa (Biggest festival for Konkani people all over the world), Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, and other areas. Outside India, it is celebrated widely in Nepal which was only Hindu Kingdom in the world and Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka.
About two or three months before Ganesh Chaturthi, life-like clay models of Lord Ganesha are constructed and sold by skilled artisans. These beautiful idols depict Lord Ganesha in variuous poses, sometimes in a dancing mood, at other times with a small drum or in a simple sitting pose with one hand showering blessings on the observer. The artisans, many of whom make a living out of creating idols, compete with each other to make bigger and better sculptures of the Lord resulting in some magnificient creations that captivate the attention of spectators. The sizes of the relatively larger ones range anywhere from 10 meters to 30 meters in height. Most of these statues are life-sized figures but can also be smaller, of about one or two feet.
While the preparations for the festival begin months in advance with the starting of the creation of the idols, the occasion actually begins with the installation of these idols. Some of the idols are bought for individual celebrations and set up in beautifully decorated houses. But these are mostly bought by committees for public celebrations. Public celebrations of Ganesh Chaturthi are highly popular in India and the occasion witnesses marquees or temporary constructions (known as pandals) being specially erected in every locality in the days leading up to the festival. Each locality makes its own special pandal. People attribute considerable social significance to the pandals as communities compete with each other to put up a more outstanding one. These structures which are erected with monetary contributions from the local inhabitants are decorated as beautifully as possible with flowers, lights, foams or other ornamental items.
On the actual festive day, idols of the Lord are installed in every pandal. Each pandal has a different priest. A Kalash or the pot filled with sanctified water and rice to be installed before invoking Lord Ganesha idol. The rice or water filled Kalash is also called Purna Kumbha. Kalasha Sthapana is performed before invoking Ganesh. The priest, generally dressed in a red silk dhoti and shawl, performs a holy ritual known as "Pranapratishhtha" to invoke life into the statue amidst the chanting of sacred verses (mantras). This ritual is followed by another one called "Shhodashopachara" (16 ways of paying tribute). Items like coconut, 21 durva (trefoil blades of grass, 21 modakas, jaggery and red flowers are offered to the deity. The statue of the Lord is anointed with a red mixture of kukum (saffron or turmeric) and chandan (sandalwood paste). All through the ceremony, Vedic hymns from the Rig Veda and the Ganapati Atharva Shirsha Upanishad as well as the "Ganesha stotra" from the rrada Purana are chanted. Special prasad and food (cooked without onions and garlic) are prepared to mark the first day of the puja.
Aarti (a ritualistic puja with hymns) is performed twice a day - in the morning and in the evening. Most people of the community attend the evening aarti. They actually rush home from work to take part in the festivities and gather around the brightly-lit Ganesha. The entire family wears fresh and clean clothes and assembles in the sacrosanct area. As they sing hymns, everyone is given some flowers and rice in their hands. These are later showered on Ganesha. Sometimes a few families get together in someone's house for the aarti. Each ceremony is rounded off with people tucking in toothsome modaks, in keeping with Ganesha's style.
People offer prasad of modaks or peras, coconut, hibiscus or any other red flower, sheaves of grass, vermilion, turmeric powder and rice. The prasad can be bought from the little stalls or puja shops all over town. During Ganesh Chaturthi, in most parts of the country people offer prasad to the image of Ganesha in their mini temples at home.
Hindu mythology has a story to tell even about Ganesha's modaks. It is said that Ganesha loved modaks and simply could not stop himself from eating them. In fact he devoured them by the hundreds. Amused by Ganesha's obsession with modaks, once the beautiful moon made fun of the chubby God. Ganesha was so furious with the moon that he cursed him, saying that his beauty would never remain constant. Since that day, way back in time, the moon reveals itself in all its magnificence only once in 28 days.
Only a few people observe a fast on this festival as, for the most part, the general feeling is that Ganesha's birthday should be an occasion for pigging out and not for fasting. The few who do keep a fast are allowed to eat various sweets like til ka ladoo (a round sweetmeat made of sesame, flour and sugar), gajak, rewari (sweets made of jaggery and nuts), along with tea and coffee.
The duration of the Lord's stay varies from place to place. Usually Ganesh Charturthi is celebrated for 10 days, from Bhadrapad Shudh Chaturthi to the Ananta Chaturdashi. People try to make a visit to as many pandals as possible with their friends and family and get a "darshan" (view) of the deity.
The festival comes to an end on the day of Anant Chaudashi. On this day, the idols of Ganesha are taken from various pandals, doorsteps, localities and puja rooms for a truly royal ride. The streets of Mumbai are packed with multitudes as each locality comes out on the streets with its Ganesha. On the 11th day, after a final offering of coconuts, flowers and camphor, every idol is taken through the streets in a procession and immersed in nearby lakes or river or sea. Every one, old and young, joins Lord Ganesha in his farewell journey but with festive merriment as the deity is believed to take away with him all the misfortunes of his devotees. Firecrackers announce the arrival of the procession that halts every now and then for people to get a last glimpse of their favourite God and seek his blessings, for he is the remover of all obstacles. Devotees dance and sing songs and play with color on this day. The idol is given a "visarjan" (immersion) amidst loud chants of "Ganesh Maharaj Ki Jai!" (Hail Lord Ganesh). The idols are carried into the holy waters, and face the direction of the local community centres they started their journey from, till their visarjan, or immersion. In other towns and villages, folks carry the idols to the local river or tank for the visarjan ceremony.
People make pleas to the Lord to return the next year with chants of "Ganpati bappa morya, pudcha varshi laukar ya" (Hail Lord Ganesh, return again soon next year). The procession and immersion is accompanied with dancing and the sound of exciting drum-beats, devotional songs and exploding firecrackers.
As dusk takes charge of the skies, people return to their localities and homes, awaiting Ganesha's return the following year. Artists and sculptors start imagining how they will make an even nicer Ganesha next year. Housewives fret about making better modaks and pedas than others. The community at large thinks of superior and more elaborate pandals and processions, on their way back home and to work.