By Purwa Bansod
MUMBAI, September 24, 2010 - For 10 days in mid-September, the Ganesh Chaturthi festival was in full swing here, with the whole city joining in song and parades in praise of the elephant-headed god. Devotees celebrated by honoring idols of the god with prayer and offerings before symbolically returning these representations of Ganesh back to the heavens on the eleventh day by immersing them in the sea.
The ancient tradition is particularly beloved in Mumbai, but modern celebrations of Ganesh Chaturthi have taken on modern implications—including a significant environmental toll.
Traditionally, the Ganesh idols were made of unpainted clay, so that when they were immersed in the ocean at the end of the festival, the clay simply dissolved into the sea. Today, in addition to smaller idols displayed at home, communities and temples construct pandals, areas meant for the display and worship of Ganesh idols, which are as tall as eight feet. Modern idols are not only frequently immense, but they are made of plaster of Paris, and often painted with toxic paints.
The tradition of visarjan, or symbolic immersion of the idol into the ocean, has had far-reaching environmental implications for water pollution in Mumbai and other Indian cities. The plaster of Paris doesn't dissolve, leaving broken idols strewn across Mumbai's many waterfronts the morning after the celebration ends. Many remaining pieces of these idols sink to the bottom of the ocean, where they take years to disintegrate, greatly disturbing the ocean's ecosystem. Similarly, the paints used on the idols raise the level of acidity in the water, leading to a high toll on local sea life. In a city already plagued with issues of littering, visarjan only adds to the already polluted waters of the Arabian Sea.
However, efforts for a green Ganesh festival have stepped up, and public awareness is growing. In Mumbai's Cathedral school, students decided to draw a chalk Ganesh on blackboards in their classrooms and simply erase the idol-drawing at the end of the celebration. Many initiatives, such as the Mocha TreeHuggers and Wilson College Nature Club, bring together individuals from across the city to help clean debris from the submerged idols the day following visarjan. This simple act helps both raise awareness of the practice's environmental impact and promotes a sense of civic pride.
Campaigns have cropped up all over the city aiming to encourage the use of eco-friendly Ganesh idols, many originating from college campuses. Most solutions are simple, such as encouraging the use of clay idols that will dissolve easily into the sea. Others suggest symbolically dunking the idol into buckets of water and re-using them the following year. Many organizations promote the sale of clay idols and pass out paper bags to collect garlands, coconuts, and other ritual items that are discarded with the idols into the sea.
The DNA, a daily newspaper, widely advertised a campaign for a green Ganesh festival this year, called DNA Eco Ganesha. The campaign exists in three phases: donation of newspapers for the construction of papier-mâché idols, distribution of 250 clay idols, installation of papier-mâché and clay idols in a popular mall, and a competition for the 20 "greenest" Ganesh pandals, to be announced on television on September 25.
While there is still no widely orchestrated effort to raise awareness around the detritus of the visarjan, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board and Brihanmumbai Municipal Council issued guidelines for an eco-friendly Ganesh Chaturthi. Though these guidelines are not mandatory, the Board has stated that it is working closely with the public to implement them.
Ironically, Ganesh Chaturthi is tied strongly to a respect for nature. The celebration marks the end of the monsoon, and devotees are giving praise to the fertile soil left behind by the rains. Mumbai's citizens are optimistic that efforts to curb the environmental damage from Ganesh Chaturthi are getting better every year as more individuals attempt to commune with Ganesh while keeping mindful of the original intentions of the celebration: giving praise for what nature has to offer.
Purwa Bansod is a staff member of Asia Society India Centre. The opinions expressed in this piece are entirely her own and do not reflect the views of the Asia Society India Centre.