Monday, 24 September 2012

Playing with fire at Ganpati

Mr Jules and I somehow managed to get amazingly caught up in a Ganpati ritual last night on Carter Road.

During a big fat roast pork Sunday dinner (with crackling, yum), we could hear the distant beat of drums through the open windows.  As we had not really seen any of the Ganpati celebrations so far, we decided to take a stroll to the beach to see what what going on. 

Firstly - I won't go into a long explanation of the origins of the Ganesh Chuturthi festival (you can read everything here, if you are interested) - commonly called Ganpati.  But in short, the festival celebrates the birthday of Ganesha and clay statues of the god are made by special artisans two to three months in the run up to the celebrations - from the smallest of small sizes to over 70 feet tall.  During the celebrations, people have the statues in their homes, in temporary shrines that are constructed on every street and in every sacred place going.  The statues which are decorated in the gaudiest of colours (making Ganesha look more like a tacky seaside souvenir than a revered god!) are further adorned with marigolds, candles and personalised decorations.  Money can also be stuck on to them like a bride at a Greek Wedding.

Our next door neighbour's Ganesha Shrine.  No expense spared with the orchids!

Ganesha is worshipped in full force for 10 days and then on the 11th day, comes the immersion - the statue is taken through the streets in a procession accompanied with dancing, singing, and fanfares to be immersed in a river or the sea. This  "symbolises a ritual see-off of the Lord in his journey towards his abode in Kailash while taking away with him the misfortunes of his devotees".   People at home  might just immerse their statue in a bucket of water.  In Mumbai you will see loads of these statues constantly being transported - by truck, by cart, by hand...all the people making their way to water like lemmings. 

Ganesha, blindfolded and kidnapped
The point at which Mr Jules and I caught this process was during the chanting and blessing and flame throwing before the idol was to be taken right into the sea.  A community had dragged their Ganesha all the way from Dhobi Ghat by foot! I thought this was miles away but Google Maps tells me that this is a 2 hour 7 minute walk (basically then, it's quicker to walk than go by car!).

So last night, as we were walking past this group of people, I had turned round to take a photograph of their Ganesha and before I knew it, people were tugging at my arm, calling me over and trying to seat me right in front of the statue!  "pliz, tek photo, tek good photo!!!" So I sat there on the pavement looking up at everyone else for the whole of the pre-dunking ceremony, whilst Mr Jules craned his neck to find me over the crowd.  We were the only 'outsiders'...what a privilege!

The ritual involved a main guy chanting words from a book whilst everyone else tried to follow, lots of waving of hands in the air, lots of throwing of marigold petals on to our heads and lots and lots of swirling of fire in front of the statue. The air was accrid with incense and the chanting was very Shaman-like.  This went on for a very long time. The people were gradually closing in and I couldn't move and it was getting very hot.  I did start to feel a bit faint at this point and had to try and remove myself from the crowd.  But hands were pulling at me and dragging me back.  Then I realised half of them were completely smashed!  "Pliz tek photo, pliz tek photo, my mam, my dad, my brother!!"  One of the guys kept trying to make groups of people with his family for me to photograph, throwing himself into the middle each time.  Then Mr Jules was brought into the equation and everyone wanted their photo taken with the tall blonde man.  It was very sweet if a little manic...

Eventually, after having banana pieces and almond paste pressed into our hands and told to eat it, having extensive photos taken with every person and every member of their families, we politely made it away.  Unfortunately this did mean that we did not actually see the immersion which was to follow...but at least we did have the privilege of getting involved somehow!  Here are the photos:

Photo of the group before I got hauled in
Once hauled in, I had to sit right in front of Ganesha, in full view of everyone

The view from the floor.  The main guy chanting from his book (Ladybird Book of Hindu Chants)

Some offerings

Waving of fire in front of the statue (me still on the floor in hair singeing distance)

Lots of clapping and chanting....boy desperate to throw his marigold petals

More waving of fire..note the money stuck to Ganesha.
I kept wondering if this was going to end up in the sea and if so what a waste!

It's getting very warm and very intense at this point!

These are the two 'main women'...very scary looking

Thowing of marigold petals...I ended up with them in my hair, down my top, in my shoes...everywhere!

The two scary women

The peak of intensity - I managed to extract myself from the group at this point.
Before we managed to flee - one of the [out of focus] group photos

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