AUGUST 28, 2020 

Text and Photographs by Gautam Doshi 

COVID turns tide on India's Ganesh festival traditions

Thousands of ritual statues are dunked into the sea off Mumbai each year – but coronavirus and pollution concerns are forcing change

In the quiet housing estate of Angrewadi in the heart of Girgaon in south Mumbai, people are celebrating the 100th consecutive year of the Ganesh Chaturthi, the Hindu festival of the elephant-headed god of new beginnings. Statues of Lord Ganesh are brought into homes and put on display for offerings and prayers.

On the 11th and final day of the festival, the ritual of Ganesh Visarjan takes place – falling this year on 1 September. The statues, normally made of soluble plaster of paris, are traditionally carried in a public procession with music and chanting, and are then immersed in either a river or the sea. Here, they slowly dissolve in a ceremony that dramatises the Hindu view of the ephemeral nature of life – but also causes widespread pollution.

In Mumbai alone, around 150,000 statues are immersed each year. Angrewadi residents normally head to Girgaon Chowpatty beach, just over a mile away. Most statues from south Mumbai are submerged in these waters, including one particularly revered idol, Lalbaugcha Raja, which stands over six meters tall.

But not this year.

In Mumbai – one of the Indian cities most affected by coronavirus – devotees are not heading for the beach this year. Instead, Mumbai’s governing body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), has installed more than 200 artificial ponds across the city so that the tradition may be upheld while preventing large crowds gathering.

Environmentalists hope these ponds, which will reduce pollution, will become a permanent fixture

“We will be immersing our eco-friendly idol in a small aluminum tub this year,” says DV Kulkarni, head of Angrewadi’s event-organising committee.

Devotees will not be allowed to go near the new ponds, but will instead hand over their statues to workers who will immerse them as the owners watch from a distance.

The BMC – which has limited the size of the religious statues to a maximum of 1.2 metres this year – has also arranged for pick-up trucks to collect statues from people who do not want to leave their homes. Those who still want to use the sea will need to seek approval online and book a time slot. The same regulations will apply to some of the new ponds.

Traditionally, most statues are dropped into the Arabian Sea, leaking chemicals into the marine ecosystem along Mumbai’s coast. Varying in size, from just a few centimetres to up to 20 metres, most of the idols are made of non-biodegradable plaster, which can take years to dissolve.

Paints and materials containing lead, mercury, chromium and other harmful substances are used to colour and decorate the statues, and thousands of garlands of plastic flowers are thrown into the sea with them.

Indranil Sengupta and Rabia Tewari launched the Mahim Beach Clean Up campaign in Mumbai in 2017. They say the ritual causes great marine damage.

After last year’s festival, says Tewari, the impact on marine life was immediate. “The tide was low, and several idols were still on the beach . We could also see plenty of dead fish around. We were so disappointed to see it.

The seepage of harmful substances is also biomagnified in marine life, which indirectly harms humans too,” says Debi Goenka, executive trustee of Conservation Action Trust in Mumbai.

The rise in use of eco-friendly idols, made from clay, is starting to have a positive impact on water pollution. According to reports by the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board, the water quality indexat Girgaon Chowpatty beach has improved from 49.77 (out of a maximum of 100) in September 2016, to 64.19 in September 2019. September is the month when the festival ends and when pollution peaks.

But the improvement has come at a cost to local businesses.

Read the full article and view all the photos here