Hindus Celebrate the Birthday of Ganesh

The 10-day festival of Hinduism's 'remover of all obstacles,' Ganesh Chaturthi.

(RNS) It has been nearly 30 years since Praful Menon left India for the United States. Time enough for some memories to fade, and for some customs to turn archaic. But at this time of year, when millions of Hindus such as Menon celebrate the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi, the Bombay of her youth comes alive.

"Bombay is amazing," said Menon from Houston, preparing for her own Texas-style festivities. "Until people see it they can't imagine what it's like."

For 10 days, beginning Aug. 22, it is, quite simply, as if the entire city of 12 million is upended. Slum-dwellers and high-rise residents alike, the extremely devout and the merely enthusiastic collectively participate in what is essentially one long birthday celebration.

The object of so much adoration is Ganesh, also known as Ganapathi, or "the elephant-headed god." For most Hindus, no undertaking is made without first worshipping Ganesh. He is the remover of all obstacles, the guarantor of safe passage, and while he is worshipped in cities and villages throughout India, Bombay's celebration is considered the most spectacular.

The festival begins quietly in the household. After a home has been scrubbed clean, each family installs the Ganesh idol of their choice, traditionally made out of clay.

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The sculptures may range in size from a few inches to several feet in height, and the postures may vary -- sometimes standing, sometimes sitting. All of a sudden, explained Menon, "They (people) feel like they have a chief guest at home."

"I remember ever since I was a child, saying, `Oh, Ganapathi has come. Ganapathi has come!'" recalled Menon. "Everybody gets so excited."

In the days to come, family and friends drop in on each other, praying to Ganesh and observing how the idol has been decorated, with paint, flowers and garlands of grass. But it is outside, in the streets of Bombay, where the real action takes place. This is where the truly mammoth Ganesh idols hold court, some over 30 feet in height and elaborately painted, often draped in strings of electric lights.

At the end of the festival, thousands of such idols are trucked out to Bombay's beaches, crowds in tow. Here, they are ceremonially immersed in the ocean and left to dissolve and "sink back into the universal consciousness," explained Sannyasin Arumugaswami, managing editor of Hinduism Today magazine.

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