(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.

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.

In addition, for those 10 days every residential complex and subdivision, as well as every cultural organization, mounts musical concerts, dramas and dances, some traditional and sublime, others in the raucous vein of the city's extremely popular film culture, known as Bollywood.

Some of the city's biggest movie studios organize their own mandals, or floats, and come immersion day, when the streets are filled with ocean-bound processions, people vie for prime viewing spots.

"We'd wait in the roadside for two or three hours to see the RK Studio Ganapathi," said Menon, referring to the movie studio established by one of India's most famous actors and directors, Raj Kapoor. "When I was young we'd stand in the rain or sun. It would be very grand. Even the truck would look so lovely. Sometimes you get to see some film stars also."

Elsewhere, you will see mandals that speak to the pressing issues of the day, with elaborate tableaux of soldiers or wily politicians surrounding the Ganesh idol.

"In India, Ganesh festival is observed as a cultural festival," said K.L. Seshagiri Rao, professor emeritus of Hinduism at the University of Virginia and the chief editor of the upcoming Encyclopedia of Hinduism.

"People have ... seminars, lectures, social service projects. It is very helpful for the welfare of the people. Ganesh is not just about ritualistic worship," he said.

The roots of Ganesh worship go back many centuries. According to legend, Ganesh was created by the goddess Parvati, wife of Shiva. Parvati, wanting privacy, created a young boy who would stand guard as she bathed. When Shiva, the God of Destruction, came home, he was prevented from entering his own home and duly chopped off the head of Ganesh.

Penitent and seeking domestic damage control, Shiva sent his attendants out in search of a replacement head, which they took from an elephant. Ganesh's life was renewed, as was Shiva and Parvati's marriage.

References to Ganesh can be found in the most ancient Hindu scriptures, but "the belief in Ganesh increased in particular in the fifth century, and in the eighth and ninth centuries spread through Southeast Asia," said Vasudha Narayanan, a professor of Hinduism at the University of Florida and the president-elect of the American Academy of Religion.

In time, Ganesh became one of the most popular deities in the Hindu pantheon.

"It's easy for people to understand the concept of Ganesh," said Arumugaswami. "It's a god who inspires fondness so easily. Strange as it may seem, my experience is that Americans relate more easily to Ganesh. Everybody loves an elephant."

Nonetheless, it's also easy for people to get the basics wrong.

"First of all, Hindus worship one God," said Rao, "and that one God is infinite, with infinite qualities and infinite names. But some people think Hindus worship many gods. When we worship Ganesh, we worship only one God. No Hindu says Ishwara (God) is two."

In America, celebrations have been occurring in Hindu enclaves across the country. On the opening day of the festival at the Hindu Temple Society of North America in New York, hundreds of devotees watched as the Ganesh idol was hefted into the air by eight men and paraded outside. As the bearers approached a low overhang, the priest commanded like a drill sergeant, "Downnn!"

And in New Jersey, Tirupathi Srinivasan Devanathan carried out his first Ganesh puja on his own, molding a small lump of sandalwood paste into a makeshift idol, inverting the emptied half-rind of a lemon into an oil lamp.

It had been less than a year since the computer programmer had arrived from Chennai, in South India, and the experience was bittersweet.

"I felt quite sad that I was not with my family in India," he said. "But I had to perform my duty."

The relationship that followers have with Ganesh is clearly an intimate one, and is felt most strongly at the end of the festival. The idol has been immersed and the house feels strangely empty.

"You come home and you feel sad," said Menon, recalling past festivals. "You feel like you've lost somebody."

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