Ganesh Chaturthi is an annual festival that celebrates the fun, elephant-headed God. Ganesh is the remover of obstacles, giver of wisdom and happy beginnings. This festival takes place somewhere between mid-August to mid-September every year — the exact date is governed by the Hindu lunar calendar. In 2014, Ganesh Chaturthi falls on 29th August. It is celebrated all over India, but with additional vigour and aplomb in Maharashtra.
If you live in Maharashtra, especially in Mumbai, you might also have an annual tradition of cursing traffic jams during Ganesh Chaturthi — initially when large pandals eat into the choked road, and later, during Visarjan or the immersion processions that wind around the arterial roads of the city till they reach a water body.
Ganesh is back again this week. The city pandals are up, the large idols have been making their way to their home-for-the-festival and the chaos has begun. But before you diss it all, let’s go back to the beginning and understand why this is probably one of the most popular festivals in Maharashtra.
Public celebrations began in Shivaji Maharaj’s time in Pune in the mid 1600s. But the Marathas went out of power and with that, Ganesh retired indoors and the festival became a private one again. Let’s jump to the late 1800s when India was palpitating with the cry for freedom. Bal Gangadhar Tilak called Lokmanya or the beloved of the people, a freedom fighter and social reformer, was worried about how India would fight the British with many internal quibbles. India was not one cohesive whole; divisions by region and religion, caste and class. Added to that, the British Government had banned large public gatherings for fear of another uprising.
Tilak was a shrewd man. He urged people to install large Ganesh statues in pandals or pavilions, encouraged lengthening the festival to 10 days and bringing people together for cultural events like plays, folk dances and concerts and importantly, intellectual debates. Tilak, asked in his newspaper Kesari, Why shouldn’t we convert the large religious festivals into mass political rallies? And that’s exactly what happened! This festival became the meeting ground — that place where people of all castes, communities and social classes got together and discussed their common goal, that of freedom! Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu are believed to have participated in debates and engaged with the public during this festival.
The British Government was shaken by the popularity of this festival and considered banning it. But the Queen had proclaimed ‘freedom of faith’ to the Indians and the Ganesh Festival continued. By the early 1900s, the British did put down many restrictions and curtailed the festival till it was but a shadow of Tilak’s vision.
Today, the Ganesh Festival has bloomed to ginormous proportions. It is a public display that inconveniences many as they rush from one meeting to another. Let’s step back and go back to why it all began. Walk to that pandal in your neighbourhood. Judge it not for what it is but for why it all began… for Indian Freedom!
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