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Ganesha galore!

A Ganesha idol in Pune, India

A colourful Ganesha in Pune.

By James Dacey, reporting from India

Earlier this week was the first day of the Hindu festival Ganesh Chaturthi and the city of Pune was a spectacular sight as a multitude of colourful Ganesha idols cropped up in temples across town. This 11-day festival takes place each year in honour of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god who is said to remove obstacles from the lives of those who worship him. I had been staying in Pune at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA). I think various people were concerned (quite rightly) that if I went to see the idols alone, then I would get horribly lost among the throngs of people. So Shruti, one of the astrophysics PhD students, kindly offered to join me on a rickshaw tour of some of the temples.

Shruti told me a version of the story of how Ganesha came to possess his unforgettable elephant head at the hands of his father Shiva, the god of gods. The story goes that Shiva’s wife Parvati had created the boy Ganesha out of earth and asked him to guard a room in her home, forbidding anyone to enter. When Shiva returned to find his path blocked by Ganesha, he was furious, so he chopped off the boy’s head. Parvati was distraught at sight of her headless son; so to appease his wife, Shiva went to fetch a new head, the first one he could find.

These days, Ganesha is celebrated by Hindus as a god of the people and Ganesh Chaturthi is one of the most significant festivals in his honour. During Ganesh Chaturthi, families and communities create decorative Ganesh idols out of clay and erect them in permanent and pop-up temples, returning each day to pray to the idol and share offerings. The festival comes to a close with “Immersion”, when idols are released into large bodies of water, commonly the sea or lakes. In fact, I’ve noticed several articles in the local papers about efforts this year to keep the Ganesha decorations environmentally friendly by using things like non-toxic paints.

On my fly-by tour today, things were still warming up; but there were still throngs of people and some fantastic idols on show, including the one pictured above. I also learned from a local that Pune is of particular importance because it is the home of the modern form of the festival, which began in the late 19th century. The man told me that small local celebrations got the support of the nationalist politician Lokmanya Tilak, who promoted the festival as a means of bringing people together of different castes and Hindu faiths to create unity against the British rule. He assured me that there are no hard feelings today!

From my experiences talking with Indian physicists and engineers, it has been fascinating to hear them describe Hindu traditions in the same academic way that they describe their work. For instance, it was funny yesterday during my temple tour when Shruti was telling us about the “logic” of the Ganesha-losing-his-head story. “It shows that you should always listen to your parents,” she joked. I was also given a more serious lesson about the meaning of Ganesh Chaturthi by a group of astronomers a couple of days ago when I visited the Giant Metre Wave Telescope about 80 km north of Pune. Over lunch they were talking about how Hindu stories often involve the concepts of renewal and cycles, and that this could explain the idea behind the immersion at the end of the festival.

One problem with the Ganesh idols, however, is that they are often coated with toxic paints that dissolve in the water to create environmental hazards. There have been attempts by the authorities to persuade people to buy eco-friendly alternatives, as this article in the Times of India explains, but other reports suggest that sales of the traditional version – being cheaper – remain stubbornly high.

Yesterday I said farewell to Pune and headed back to Mumbai, where I’m sure plenty more Ganesha madness awaits!

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