Starting today, Indians from all walks of life will come together to spend the next ten days celebrating the birth of Ganesh, the “elephant god” of Hinduism. The birthday (or rebirth) of Ganesh, Ganesh Chaturthi (sometimes known as Vinayaka Chaturthi), is near and dear to Hindus in India and the subcontinent’s massive diaspora.
From Maharashtra and Gujarat to Karnataka and Goa, devotees visit their local pandals (fabricated structures for religious ceremonies) dedicated to the Elephant God, where they venerate statues of the zoomorphic deity, beloved across India. Ganesh maintains a ubiquitous presence in Indian culture, with myriad styles of representation, from sitting and dancing to slaying demons and playing as a boy – even humbly riding on a mouse.
Most often he is depicted in a lotus pose or while sitting cross-legged on an elevated platform wearing loose flowing garments and holding an ax, a goad, a broken tusk, a noose, a lotus, or sweets in which he enthusiastically indulges, depending on the statue at hand. Description of the symbolic significance of each item can be read here.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
While Hinduism is a highly complex and diverse system of beliefs with myriad interpretations of “God,” to put it in the simplest of terms Ganesh is a perennial favorite. This is understandable, given that he is known as the god of wisdom and knowledge, making him particularly popular among students. But above all else, he is the god who can remove all obstacles. Two to three months prior to the divine fête, followers fashion clay models of the four-armed elephant-headed deity ranging from 3/4 of an inch to taller than 25 feet. Indians can be seen putting in their prep time leading up to the festival here.
These effigies are then placed on altars throughout the subcontinent from people’s homes to decked-out tents. Believers flock to these statues en masse where they give up offerings of coconut, jaggery (traditional non-centrifuged sugar), 21 modaks (sweet rice dumplings), 21 trefoil blades (durva) and red flowers. Ganesh is then daubed with red paste (rakta chandan), as the faithful sing hymns from the Rig Veda, among other sacred texts.
Devotees are encouraged to avoid looking at the moon on the first day of the festival as it is considered bad luck. They are further advised to meditate on the stories that comprise Ganesh’s narrative. The most ardent may also fast and undertake a 16-step procedure meant to win the elephant god’s favor.
The festival comes to a close on the 11th day when Ganesh receives a joyful send off, as his likeness is paraded through streets amid dancing, singing and merrymaking. The statues are then immersed in either a river or the ocean –whichever is closer. With this gesture he takes with him the misfortunes of man and makes the journey to his abode in Kailash.
Yesterday, a few of India’s top leaders greeted the nation ahead of the festival, calling on the spirit of the nation’s favorite deity to infuse the country at a broader social level as well.
“On this joyous occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi, I express my warm greetings and felicitations to all my fellow citizens,” said Indian President Pranab Mukherjee. “The large scale public celebrations of this festival were successfully encouraged by the great freedom fighter Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak to galvanize support for India’s Independence movement.”
Mukherjee added, “May the festivities associated with Ganesh Chaturthi mark the beginning of fresh efforts towards building a new, just, strong and caring India where people live in happiness and harmony. Let us celebrate this festival by reaffirming our faith in all that is good, noble and virtuous and instilling in ourselves pride in the composite culture of India.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh added, “May this festival bring joy, prosperity, peace and happiness to all.”