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Ganesh Festival, Mumbai, September 2015

Before moving here, I'd been told that Mumbai goes crazy for festivals. We'd been here for a month before the first one hit: Ganesh Chaturthi, which is a 10-day fiesta featuring Ganesh, the elephant god.

It's a Hindi festival, and much of the action surround clay (*) statues that are put in people's houses or on the street, to be dumped dumped into the ocean at some point during the week. The `immersions' happen roughly on days 2, 3, 5, 7, and 10. And they're usually accompanied by a large procession, perhaps with hundreds of statues, and thousands of people dancing, playing drums and synthesizers, and handing out bananas and coconuts. This is reapeated in hundreds of places all over Mumbai, night after night. The final procession sees the largest and most well-known Ganeshes be tossed into the ocean... something over a million people come down to watch this at Mumbai's largest beach.

While many of the smaller statues start in people's houses, the large ones are kept on the street in special tents that -- in our neighborhood in Khar -- are on nearly every block. If you visit the tents, you can chat with the people who have made that Ganesh (usually a family, or block, or building, or company), and usually you'll end up with a banana and some indian sweets ('modak'), although I also got a pomegranate and chikoo fruit.

We've only been here a month. But walking toward the immersion one night was the first time that India really hit me. It is so surreal and amazing to be outside at midnight, in the hot, humid, dark monsoon rain, walking and dancing (**) with thousands of happy Indians who are pulling life-sized plaster elephant statues on wheels, and I'm watching them play trumpets and what look like old grammophones, and they're thowing marigolds and rice, AND NO ONE IS DRUNK, or at least not very many, and the women are in fancy saaris dancing, and it's still midnight, and they're headed to the ocean. What kind of crazy world is this? So amazing and I'm loving it.

(*) Plaster of Paris, which most of them are made of, is apparently not water-soluble, so the statues just end up in a big pile below the sea. Many in Mumbai are now made of papier mache, which is somewhat more environmentally friendly. In either case, there are some large beach cleanups at the major sites.

(**) Well, I was taking photos. But everyone dancing insisted I join them, and a lot of them really have the Bollywood moves down.


Slideshow (big images)

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I'll start with my favorite photo, and then do the rest in proper order. Here we're in the middle of the immersion at Girgaum Chowpatty, the most well-known beach in Mumbai. This is the last night of the festival. One family (of thousands) is taking their Ganesh down to the ocean. The man at the front is waving the fire around and saying something in Hindi. Everyone's feet are in the water already. The cart has marigolds, bananas, and coconuts on it, and the burning plate has rice.

And in the background of course are the skyscrapers of downtown Mumbai... then the mud, then a million people.

Night 1 in Khar

Back to our neighborhood at the beginning of the week. Here's one Ganesh 'pandal', or pavillion, down the street from us. This one was built by a family and includes some animatronics. Another one we saw had a real-live waterfall inside it. There are thousands of these around -- perhaps one every block near where we live.
And another one, with part of the family who put this pandal together.

They all really wanted me to take a picture of their grandma, who was sitting at the back, but she didn't want it as much as they did.

And another...
And the kids outside...
One more on the first night, that had just been put up. Ther are about seven ganeshes here, and all of them are riding animals.
This guy also invited me in to see his ganesh in the previous shot. Then they gave me three bananas, a persimmon, and some sort of hard brown fruit, which I later found out to be a chickoo.
And his companions. They offered a toke on their pipe, which they laughed and debated amongst themselves what it was exactly that they were smoking. (Their English was only slightly better than my Hindi, so we didn't get far.)

Night 5 in Khar

Here I am on night 5. I wandered a few blocks from our street and followed the drums.
More dancing. The lights are string across the street.
Those drums are loud!
Holy moly! It looks like they have Victrolas here. What they are is amplified horns for their electronic keyboards, all protected from the monsoon by plastic sheeting. Check out that movie!

Despite the street being blocked by dancers and elephants (that's a pair of ganeshes at the center), the city busses are still running. And yes, traffic is really, really bad during Ganesh Chaturthi... I had a talk I was supposed to give on the night that all the Ganeshes were to be delivered, and it was pre-emptively cancelled by the school lest I were to get stuck in a 4-hour traffic jam of elephants, bananas, and drums.
"So how do you like the Indian music?", they asked me. It is fantastic, and what's cool is that the music was just 1% of the whole experience of walking around that evening.
This Ganesh processional had a DJ van with lights. They insisted that I dance.
They then said that I must help them pish the Ganesh. It's on a push-cart, with DJ van behind. Note the bananas and coconuts surrounding that elephant.
More dancing! That's the surgeon's office right next to the 'fresh paneer centre.' Check out that movie of Piper dancing, too!

Night 10 on Girgaum Chowpatty (Beach)

Change of scenery! Now we're at Girgaum Chowpatty, Mumbai's most well-known beach for the Ganesh immersions. There are about a million other people here, and they are all here to immerse their ganeshes (or watch others do it). They get wheeled in on carts, one by one. This family brings in their statue.
Some are loaded onto trucks. Indian trucks are amazing -- all that carved woodwork. Run fast!
Some are loaded onto trucks.
One large Ganesh being hauled from the street, and about to come onto the beach. This is by no means the largest... some of the 2- or 3-story tall ones come near the end, around 5 AM the next morning.
Like many people, he implored that I take his picture... happy to oblige.
Crowds walking in from the road.
Mumbai has a population of 20 million. Perhaps up to 5% of them were on the beach with us. For having such a crowd, it was remarkably calm and orderly. (Not completely, but nearly.) Unlike the processions on previous nights near our house, this one had the sounds not of drums and synthesizers, but mostly voices talking. To the front is a rare gap, kept open so the cart can roll down quickly.
Look at that Ganesh about to tumble in! It's surrounded by the group of people who made it, took care of it on the street for the last 10 days, and hauled it in.
The woman on the right (in green) saw me on the shore, started talking in Hindi, grabbed my arm, and pulled me along. I was trying to keep my dry (much of the water around Mumbai is pretty sewage-heavy), but it was a lost cause, so I followed her right into the ocean. We walked and walked and walked through the water, until she found the people she was looking for. She made a motion for the camera and asked me to take a picture. Is it her brother? Her friend? Her sister? I have no idea, but I thank her for dragging me, because it was much nicer to be immersed than standing on the shore trying to stay dry.
Every ganesh rides some sort of animal... this one is riding a tiger. Malabar Hill is in the background, and the lights are all from the the beach.
Although it was a 'sea of humanity' on the beach, the sea itself was ironically much more open. No one brings swimming gear... jeans will do.

I particularly like how mellow and relaxed and normal-looking they are, except... oh! They're standing in the ocean with their clothes on, at night, with many people behind them doing the same thing. Can't see any Ganeshes here but they're not far away.

Some kids brought their own boat. Some need no boat.
Love the intensity here, and their drenched clothes as they walk through the ocean. These guys came up to me right after this and wanted pictures.

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Henry Throop

Last modified Mon Oct 5 09:25:37 2015