Last year, this time

A large Ganapati idol being trucked to a local pooja, it was a normal sight until last year. This year seems a little incomplete without the bells and whistles. I suspect that what we saw this year, that is, what we didn’t see, will be the new normal. Looking again at the photo, isn’t it interesting that Ganapati is protected by a sheet of plastic, but Shiva, above him, requires no such protection?

An evening drive in COVID times

Saturday was the first day of the Ganapati festival. When I went out to collect my new spectacles on Friday I didn’t notice any of the usual preparations: no idols being brought to their 10 days’ home in trucks, no stages being set up. On Sunday evening there would be the first day of immersion. This is usually an immersion day for the small gods from homes.

At nine in the evening we drove by one of the places set aside for immersion. There were traffic barricades and police, but no crowds of people. In other years, I have walked to this place with my camera and got nice photos of families come to immerse an idol. Nothing this year.

I passed a place where the residents get together every year and install a vary large idol. At 9 on the evening of the second day it would be rather crowded, especially if it happened to be a Sunday. Lights and preparation certainly, but no people this year.

Newspapers had carried photos of a crowded flower market in Dadar the previous day. I sat down to count the fraction of masked people. In the over hundred faces visible in that photos, I could spot more than 80% covered with masks. I wonder whether all the cities in India have compliance this good. I’ll have to wait for photos of Navaratri from across India to see that.

The six seasons: 4

Sharad follows varsha. Sharad is often translated as autumn, but this is incorrect. It is still astronomical summer in the northern hemisphere at this time, the sun has yet to cross the equator on its southward trend. This is what the British called Indian summer. It is an uncomfortable time, since the monsoon has left the air full of moisture, and the weather warms up again. At this time the weather in the Himalayas is turbulent, there are dramatic cloudbursts and floods, and passes are closed. But also this is a time when nature reawakens in the plains, with warmth and water in plenty. On the coast the monsoon storms have passed, the time of the spawning of sea life is over, and traditional fishermen take their nets out to sea in newly painted boats. The featured photo was taken in Goa.

On land, I would scour the countryside in this season with my camera for wildflowers and insects. This photo of a chocolate pansy butterfly (Junonia iphita) was taken in the comfort of a garden. Even here photographing insects involved keeping a steady hand on the camera if a mosquito bit it just as you were about to release the shutter. When you look around you, it is clear that sharad is not autumn. Nature is bursting into renewed life. The fruits of this season are specially sweet and flavourful, the late medieval imports of chikoo (Manilkara zapota, also called sapodilla, or sapota), sitaphal (Annona squamosa, known elsewhere as sugar apple), and Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana, which has no local name although it is so widespread). I love these fruits just by themselves, or in jams and ice creams, or in rum based drinks.

But most of all, this is the season of festivals. It starts with the Ganapati festival, and culminates with the Navaratri, or Durga puja. There is an almost continuous stream of festivals from Ganapati to Christmas. It is a part of the year when your resolve is badly needed. The weather is uncomfortable, and you are tempted to forgo the daily exercise that had almost come to a halt in varsha. And now there’s the tempting food, from the wonderful fresh catch of pomfret (Bramidae, also called pamplet or paplet) to the special sweets of the many festivals. Everything conspires to force you to put on weight. It’s the season to be careful.

Ganesha in Rameswaram

Very close to the Ramanathaswamy temple in Rameswaram we passed a large idol of Ganesha on a truck. Since we visited Rameswaram at the beginning of the Ganapati festival, this was not unusual. What made me stop was the drumming. A group of boys was ranked in front of the idol, wearing a white dhoti and a purple angravastram, playing a staccato rhythm on drums. It was loud, and the rhythm was not very complicated, but it was clearly the first act.

Behind them were older men with a yellow angavastram, with drums. I waited for them to start. It was a treat when they did. I discovered a wonderful new sound, made by rubbing the curved stick across the stretched membrane of the drum. Note the oldest man in the ensemble (at the center of the photo above, facing the camera). If the colour of the angavastram is anything to go by, then he was clearly special. He was absolutely focussed on the music, and seemed to be directing the others.

The drums are an announcement of an approaching event, and my guess was that this was merely the start. It would be some time before the truck moved, and the drummers would move behind it, announcing the approach of Ganesha.

A temple procession

We reached Rameswaram later than we’d expected. It was fairly dark, and the market around the Ramanathaswamy temple was clearly shutting down. On the other hand, it was the first day of the Ganapati festival, and there were pockets of crowds. We checked in to our hotel, and were out in no time for a circumambulation of the temple. The highest towers of south Indian temples are the entrance gates, gopuram. In the featured photo you see our first view of the temple: the north gate at night. We walked eastwards, towards the sea. Since the east gate is the most auspicious entrance, if there was any activity at this time, we expected it to be there.

We saw little. The bazaar was almost closed. I talked to the security at the gate about what I could take in (almost nothing) and turned to go when a well-decorated elephant slipped by. It was over before I could take a photo. But behind it was a long procession. A nadaswaram started up as the procession neared the gate, along with its accompanying drums. A crowd of umbrellas was advancing towards me down the street. I hadn’t expected anything as interesting as this!

The musicians and umbrella bearers took up position at the entrance, and I had a clear view of the center of the procession. The movement halted for a while, and I had a good view of the main attraction. This was an idol of Ganesha mounted on an enormous lion. The idol seemed to be made of copper, and the lion was probably made of brass. Although the mouse is most often shown as Ganesha’s vahana, a lion is also canonical. He is said to have inherited it from his mother, Parvati. But this is uncommon enough that this was the first time I’d seen this representation.

A crowd had gathered to watch the procession. I saw many other cameras out. The Family had taken up position across the road from me. This turned out to be a better place to take photos from, since she had the light at her back. The photos she took with her mobile phone were sharper than mine, for example that of the priest as he enters the temple (above). I was closer to the action, but shooting against the light.

Finally the attendants positioned the cart so that the wheels could turn in the right direction, and smoothly and without fuss the procession turned into the famous east-west corridor of the temple. Since photography is prohibited inside, this was one of the few opportunities I had to take photos of the corridor. We were happy that instead of flopping into bed we’d counted on Ganesh chaturthi being a special event and come out for a walk.

That time of the year, again

It is the middle of an unusually dry monsoon in Mumbai. But when it rains it seems the traffic becomes even worse. Stuck in traffic last week I edged past the obstruction and noticed at the last minute what it was. As the featured photo shows, a huge image of Ganesha was being transported, wrapped up in plastic sheets to protect it from rain.

Gauri-ganesha visarjanNow the roads are full of images being taken from home to be immersed in the sea. A speciality of the Ganesha festival is that different people keep it for different durations: starting from a day up to eleven days. Over the years the management of traffic during the festival has improved. This year seems to be the best in recent memory. There were little slowdowns as we passed groups of people like the one shown here, but no blocks at all. This one was large, so it was clearly something a neighbourhood had got together for. The crowd with it was also of a corresponding magnitude.

Two thirds of the year are over. The eleven days of Ganesha will be followed by the festival of Durga, and then Diwali. Before you know it, December will be on us. January seems just like yesterday. Did the year really pass by?

The one who removes obstacles

The end of the monsoon brings the season of festivals across India. Everything always begins with the god who removes obstacles: Ganesha or Ganapati. This is probably Mumbai’s biggest festival. Many homes have their little idol, and then there are the huge idols which bring together whole neighbourhoods. Hindu rituals involve an invocation which imbues an idol with the spirit of a god. After the spirit departs, the idol is immersed in water. For the Ganapati, this may happen after a day, three days, five days, or ten days, according to the ritual used. If you stand by the designated spots where idol immersion is allowed, you get a sense of how many Mumbai holds.

A large idol of Ganapati waiting to be immersed

I walked up to the immersion point in Colaba on Saturday. Colaba is a small place, with a population roughly the same as of Paris, and the number of idols brought for immersion on an odd day is not large. Even so, these used to cause traffic jams in the neighbourhood a decade back. Over the last few years police arrangements have become much better. Traffic flows smoothly, if a little slowly, and the crowd which gather to watch the immersion is kept under control (see the featured photo). I slipped past a waiting ambulance, and walked through an outer cordon of police. With my camera in hand, I was inspected, and found to be harmless. I could walk past the police and take up position just inside the police cordon, before the line of lifeguards. I was told not to obstruct anyone.

A family's ganapati idol is taken for immersion

This was a good point to watch the proceedings from. On a day like this no one spares attention to the fact that this is the ramp where terrorists came ashore eight years ago and launched a concerted series of attacks across the city. Now the area is full of Ganapati idols, big (photo on top) and small. The big idols take up much space in the public imagination. Even here they are surrounded by crowds. Children especially, seem to be mesmerized by these large idols. I prefer the small ones, the ones which belong to a single family.

A family returns after immersing their idol in the sea

The police let in two or three men from the family with each idol. The women, children, and other men, if there are any, stay at the police cordon. Often the men forget some ritual item or the other, and the group left behind pleads with the police to hand it to them. The idol is not thrown into the sea. People walk with it into the water and, when it is deep enough, just let it go. The idol sinks into the sea. I took a few shots of people coming back from the sea after the immersion (see photo above). There is a little emptiness about them. The excitement of the previous few days has been washed away.

Later there will be a muted attempt to clean up the sea. The baked mud of the idols will sink into the bottom of the waters and eventually be pulverized. Some of the plastic and wood used in the frame and decoration will be thrown back by the waves. This will be collected into huge heaps which will be removed to landfills. Next year the idols will come again, but hopefully with less plastic around it.

Many farewells

gbIt is impossible to miss the Ganapati festival if you are in Mumbai. Apart from the household poojas which you might be invited to, there are public festivals at every other street corner. Everything about the festival is photogenic: from the artisanal workshops where the idols are constructed, to the final immersion. A couple of years ago I went to see the immersion again with a colleague who was visiting in India. In the thirty years between my two visits to see the immersion at the Girgaum chowpatty, the event had become highly organized. In the eighties the scene of the immersion was a chaotic sea of people, often bunching up into fearsome knots on the verge of becoming a crush. It is more crowded now, but well-marked lanes for seaward and landward movement make it much easier to visit this incredible Mumbai event as a tourist. There are even tour operators who offer to work it into your itinerary. That’s such a wonderful development!

I didn’t do that today. But on day of the full moon, Ananta Chaturdashi, you cannot be on the roads of Mumbai without passing the large idols starting off on their journey to the sea. Sometimes you see them in passing on deserted streets (photo above, Ballard estate), sometimes the truck with the idol is part of the traffic on narrow roads (photo below, Colaba market). The traffic management has become slicker over the decades. Our taxi breezed past dozens of these clumps of people without getting stuck. Traffic police were on the spot, making sure that no jams develop. Apparently every idol is given a time at which they should start the journey, and a deadline by which to reach the sea. An interesting development which I’d not noticed in previous years is the presence of an “FX truck” in front of the truck with the idol, whose purpose seems to be to light up proceedings.

gcThe Ganapati (aka, Ganesh) pooja was a household affair is many parts of western India before it became a public festival under the Peshwa kings of Pune in the 18th century. The public festival was converted to its present form by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who used it as a vehicle to arouse public sentiment against British colonial rule in India. Household gods are immersed in the sea after one and half, three, five or seven days. Although the immersion of these smaller idols is not spectacular, I like to see the little knots of families reach the sea. If you watch carefully, you will notice many with a slightly lost look on their faces as they leave: it is the end of a festival, after all. The major immersions were done today, on the eleventh day. There is only one major idol left now in Mumbai, and that will be immersed on the fifteenth day. That’s definitely the end of the festival.