In Indian tradition, the principle of “Athithi Devo Bhava” or “Guest is God” is well known, but when it comes to the Ganesh festival, the opposite holds true; “Devo Athithi Bhava”. Indeed for the duration of the festival, which can be anything from 2 to 11 days, Lord Ganesha is the Guest of Honour at the Maharashtrian households across India. The idol is hosted with great style and splendor, before it is bid adieu at the banks of a river or seashore, where it is immersed.
It may sound like a bland description of another festival, but to really appreciate the Ganesha festival in all its colourful glory, you have to experience it first hand.
I fortunately get this opportunity every year. Even being based in Delhi, has not prevented it from becoming an annual feature of my family life. This may seem slightly unusual to those who have seen the Ganesh Utsav celebrations on television. Indeed everything seems to be happening at such a grand scale. The Ganesh idol itself cuts a pretty yet intimidating picture. As a matter of fact, public celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi came about only in the 20th century when Bal Gangadhar Tilak popularized its celebrations involving the masses as a means to inculcate a feeling of nationalism and bring about political unity in the country which explains why the Ganesh Chaturthi is no longer confined to homes, or even Maharashtra. And the Maharashtra Utsav going on at Delhi Haat this week just goes to prove this.
At my home, of course, it still remains a more or less private affair, as it has always been. And to me it has been around forever. My earliest memories of it, are infact not even from India, they are from the time we celebrated it in Singapore with much fervor. The fervor arising out of the fact that then it was a matter of cultural identity that we as Indians in a foreign land clung on to. Not to say that any of the fervor was lost when we came back to India. After all, the rituals, customs and the food remain the same. The hymn chanting and aarti create a temple like feel in the pooja room. The head of the family; my father leads the hymn chanting. ‘Aarti’ basically involves a diya circumscribing the deity in invisible circles, is an arm wrenching exercise that has to be performed by the family members while the chanting goes on. A ghanti and clapping of hands provide the sound effects. And believe me the total effect is quite pleasant. Over the years, my role in these poojas have undergone a subtle change. As a child the sound and light of the show attracted me, and thus the aarti and the ghanti were my areas of expertise. I found that even lip-syncing the hymns which are entirely in Sanskrit, was a difficult task, which involved twisting of your mouth in various unsavory shapes. Though I never gave up trying, something which has to do with the monkey tendency children exhibit when it comes to parental actions. And somewhere down the line I did manage to pick up the words, which remain as meaningless to me now, as they were then.
What however does not remain a mystery is the rituals. As all Hindu Poojas are conducted, even in the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, prosperity remains the main theme. While the idol itself is to be surrounded by fruits on betel leaves, the culinary preparations are also elaborate. ‘Modak’ is the food of choice for dear Lord Ganesha. It is an onion shaped flour momo, which is filled with sweetened grated coconut. Even a non-foodie like me relishes this item. And I have a feeling so does Lord Ganesha, who is famous for his pot belly and the ladoo he holds in one of his many hands (a real boon for a real foodie, I guess). But the most extraordinary feature of Lord Ganesha is undeniably the elephant head. Mythology has it that Lord Shiva chopped off his son, Ganesha’s head in a fit of anger. His anger was justified so to say, he had prevented Shiva from entering his own home on the pretext that Parvati, his mother and of course Shiva’s wife was taking a bath. Its hard to pass a moral judgement on all this, but the result was that Ganesha ended up with a elephant head. The story does not end here. It is believed that Shiva, repenting his act, also granted a special status to Gajanana by issuing a divine decree that thenceforth Gajanana would be the first to be invoked in every prayer and only after this, could the invocation of any other God takes place.
Mythology also has an explanation for why the ‘Elephant God’ has a mouse as his preferred ‘vehicle’ or ‘vahaan’ as it is called. The mythological explanations are lost on me, but the humor isn’t. Somehow Lord Ganesha has an air of joviality surrounding him. One can’t help but feel sad when the ‘Visarjan’ or immersion day comes around. This is preceded by a family lunch, where Food is offered to the God, and also eaten as Prasad. This completes his stay at one’s home. Before being taken for Visarjan, the idol is also shown around the house. Funny as it may sound, He looks quite at home, cradled in the loving arms of my father who is responsible for showing Him around our humble abode. There is no dearth of fanfare when the Visarjan actually happens. The faithful see off their beloved lord and wait, patiently, knowing that he shall return, next year, and the next and the next, as long as their faith in Him persists. He who comes as a guest, lives as family and leaves as a God.