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Ganesh Chaturthi: How did idols of the elephant-headed god become elephant-sized?

Over the years, it has become all about scale for ‘mandals’—now the Maharashtra government is trying to rein them in

The idol of Lalbaugcha Raja being taken for immersion in 2019. Photo courtesy Lalbaugcha Raja Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Mandal
The idol of Lalbaugcha Raja being taken for immersion in 2019. Photo courtesy Lalbaugcha Raja Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Mandal

From the window of his office, Balasaheb Kamble points to a spot right outside. “That’s where he would sit," he says. “Every year since 1935. He won’t this year though."

With less than a week to go for Ganesh Chaturthi, the mandap outside Kamble’s office is up, but the seat of the Lalbaugcha Raja Ganesh idol is empty. The civic body has urged mandals to have one per ward in Mumbai this year, courtesy the pandemic. Lalbaugcha Raja, like many prominent mandals in Mumbai, will not have one.

Kamble, 48, is the chairperson of the Lalbaugcha Raja Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Mandal. Every year, its Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations attract hundreds of thousands of people. They wait for hours to catch a glimpse of the idol, in queues that sometime stretch over 3km. The scale of the festivities, however, would make the darshan worth the wait. Massive archways would mark the entrance, ramps and barricades directing crowds to a grand tableau, a 14ft Ganesh sitting on the throne.

At his office, Kamble hands me a mandal memorial book. When they started 85 years ago, he explains, the mandal had set out to make social and political statements. The idol in 1942, for example, was designed to show solidarity with the Quit India movement, along with a clay idol of Mahatma Gandhi worshipping the elephant-headed god. In 1946, the idol was decked up in military uniform, à la Subhas Chandra Bose. They were all clay idols, 4-6ft tall. The taller ones, up to 8ft, were propped up by bamboo and wood.

Lalbaugcha Raja, the legend goes, is “navsacha Ganpati", a deity that supposedly grants wishes. “And with time, more and more people started coming and believing that," says Kamble. “But we noticed all they wanted was to touch the feet of the idol. The social messaging lay ignored."

In 1989, the idol’s look was standardized and its height increased to 14ft. Clay couldn’t be used for idols that big, so gypsum (better known as Plaster of Paris, or PoP) was used to construct them. “It was a break from tradition but that’s what the new generation wanted," says Kamble. “We have stuck to it since."

A month ago, the Maharashtra government, citing environmental pollution, asked for idol sizes to be reduced to 4ft. Mandals across the city opposed it, though most have since fallen in line. “This feels like an affront on us Hindus," says Kamble, though they only maintain they will not organize festivities this year for fear of crowds. Instead, Lalbaugcha Raja is hosting a 10-day arogyautsav, or health festival.

The issue of idol height remains unresolved, though. “Tall clay idols break, so we need PoP to retain the height," says Kamble. “Just because there’s no eco-friendly alternative to it, shouldn’t mean we must reduce the height."

So, when did religious sentiment get linked to size? It certainly didn’t start off that way, says Shrikant Deodhar, 63, president of the Shri Ganesh Murtikar Ani Vyavsayik Kalyankari Mandal and a fifth-generation sculptor from Pen, a town in Raigad district that manufactures over three-fourths of all the Ganesh idols sold in Maharashtra. “If you look at the Hindu scriptures, a Ganesh idol should be made only out of the amount of clay you can fit in a fist, sourced from one’s courtyard. You are to bathe, clothe, feast and worship it for one-and-a-half days and then immerse it in water. It’s meant as a symbolic gesture: You start from the soil and you go back to it. The part in the middle, the one-and-a-half-day celebration, is the life you live."

This was the way for centuries. In 1893, however, freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak pitched for public Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. “It wasn’t as much a ‘festival’ as a way to get the community together," says Nishigandha Sakhardande, founder of Travia Outdoors, which organizes heritage Ganeshotsav walks in Pune. “This was the first time the idols came out of the houses, and into the streets." The idols were put up on a stage and, for better visibility, increased in size. “Even then, they only went up to 4ft."

Initially, Tilak started public celebrations in Pune and Mumbai. Over the years, other parts of Maharashtra followed suit. “There is a crucial difference in its evolution since," says Sakhardande. “The older mandals in Pune, like Kasba Ganpati or Bhau Rangari Ganpati, only immerse the smaller replicas of their idols—up to 2ft." In Mumbai, idols of all sizes are immersed in the sea. “It’s perhaps because Mumbai is a coastal city and the immersion was never a problem," she adds. But it was just as much about the bling: “Some think, jitka jasti shoo-shaa, titka jasta maan (the bigger the better)."

PoP idols have many advantages over clay: The material is stronger, dries faster, and allows for much bigger idols. But it’s not environment friendly. It doesn’t dissolve in water.

For idol manufacturers, this wasn’t much of a concern. In Pen, Deodhar remembers, idol-making was emerging as a steady source of round-the-year revenue by the 1980s. “We mostly have marshy land around Pen," he says. “You can’t farm here. People would mostly sit and get drunk through the day. Some learnt to make PoP idols under older artisans and branched out on their own." Soon, production increased, and idols were being transported across Maharashtra, and beyond.

Umesh Naik, 54, chairperson of the Chinchpoklicha Chintamani Ganesh Mandal, remembers the first time they discussed increasing the idol’s height. It was 1990. “We thought if the other mandals were doing it, we should too." The elders weren’t keen on it. “But kalachi garaz hoti (it was the need of the hour). People get attracted to big idols. The queues get longer."

It wasn’t just a sense of “competition", he adds quickly. “We wanted to make our name, our mandal’s name."

Like Lalbaugcha Raja had two years earlier, Naik’s committee too decided to standardize the look of its Ganesh idol. The height was increased from 4ft to 15ft. A 22ft throne, inscribed with mythological figures, formed the backdrop. The colours became more vivid, the jewellery and flowers more prominent. The mandal also started carrying out an aagman and visarjan yatra (an arrival and immersion procession) for their idol, complete with dhol-tasha and aartis on microphones.

Private worship had became a public spectacle. And it worked. From a visitor count of 10,000-15,000 a day in the 1990s, the Chinchpoklicha Chintamani mandal saw 70,000-80,000 devotees a day in 2019. “Our donations increased, as did our advertisers," says Naik. Last year, the 10-day celebration netted his mandal 1.5 crore.

Today, Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated across several states. The tallest idol is not in Maharashtra but in Hyderabad: the 61ft Khairatabad Ganesh. But the unfortunate side of the bling-y celebrations too has became evident. The lakes and rivers are often clogged for weeks after large-scale immersions. In coastal areas, the sea often throws back the festival paraphernalia: mud, plastic, thermocol and broken parts of idols.

Over the years, many state governments have appealed to citizens to reduce idol height. Few have paid heed. This year, for the first time, the Maharashtra government has imposed restrictions on idol height and capped the number of public events. While they have skipped the celebrations this year, Naik says a permanent restriction on height might not fly with devotees. “Everyone has a certain image. You can tell from the kind of idols and tell the mandal. When I meet someone, people know me because of our trademark idol. That shouldn’t disappear."

Deodhar, the sculptor from Pen, says it’s a move in the right direction, but he can’t quite say that out too loud. “I am a clay artist," he says. “So if you ask me, Ganesh idols should only be made of clay. But nearly 250,000-300,000 people from my town are employed in this industry. I am their leader too, so I have to look out for their interests as well."

It’s a tough balancing act with no clear answer, he admits. “Only," he says, “environmental conservation shouldn’t have a human cost."

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