Owing to the seemingly unceasing rage of COVID-19 pandemic across the state and the city, the organisers of the iconic Mumbai’s Lalbaughcha Raja Ganeshotsav, the Lalbaugcha Raja Mandal, have decided to not hold the grand festival this year. Famous for its festivities, religious revelry, grandeur, as well as the origins (it was started by Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, tying together the religious, political, cultural, and social sentiments of the country together, again the onslaught of the British divisive policies), the festival is 86 years old. This grand venue for worshipping and celebrating Lord Ganesha is considered one of the indispensable aspects of a Mumbaikar’s life. The organisers have also said that instead of the usual celebration, the venue would see a camp for blood and plasma donation.
Established in 1934, Lalbaugcha Raja is the most famous, revered, and well-known of the thousands of Ganesha pandals that the city witnesses every year during Ganesh Chaturthi, to celebrate Ganapati Bappa– simultaneously considered city’s lord (Bappa) as well as its incorrigibly naughty son (Maharashtra has a vibrant tradition of Baala/child Ganesha, probably most prevalent in the country). For a large number, he is no less than the lifeblood itself of the city.
The core puja rituals, media reports say, would be done on a much smaller idol (Pratima), only 3-4 feet high. The usual size of Pratima is somewhere around 14 feet- the highest there is in Mumbai.
The idea of not installing the Ganesha pratima is rationalised on the basis of apprehension that holding the usual grand pandal would lead to a large crowd gathering to worship, or even get a glimpse (Darshan) of him, leading to a community spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, that has put the entire world to halt since March, killing more than half a million and infecting 15 million confirmed cases. The deadly, aerially transmitted flu is already spreading like a wildfire across the city, claiming lives of nearly 5,000 only within the city. And the secondary wreckage, that this pandemic has done to the economy- it is yet to be properly quantified. In such a grim scenario, it’s a valid question as to why am I so insistent upon a religious tradition when we’re facing such deathly existential crisis. I’d say that precisely because we’re in such mortal peril, that this becomes even more important to proceed with the pandal, for various reasons- economic, social, cultural, and spiritual.
While at the face value it looks like a noble idea, to not install the yearly Ganesha pratima at Lalbaugcha Raja, and hold blood donation camp instead, but the virtuous proposition falls apart with the slightest inquiry beneath the surface. Firstly, at a very utilitarian level, if we are aiming at maximising common good for maximum people, I doubt if it is helping the cause. The economic damage of lockdown has been no less painful than the deaths and suffering caused by the disease itself- and the people most vulnerable to the disease are being reported as the worst hit by the economic near-cease as well. The migrant labour crisis that we witnessed at the beginning of the nationwide lockdown was only the most superficial face of the economic crisis- the conditions of local millions of artisans, craftsmen, pushcart vendors etc. is almost as worse as those who came from other parts of the country as daily wage labourers, and found themselves jobless and penniless suddenly one day.
And the same group of people’s large chunk of livelihood is dependent on Ganeshotsav earnings as well — the murtikars (idol makers), shilpkars (sculptors), transporters, people providing sound and lighting services during the celebration, the local shopkeepers, and of course the Pujari-s who are anyways one of the worst hit by lockdown.
Has the impact on their survival been considered in the decision-making process?
Secondly, at the social level, it has been a damp, dark year so far — I don’t think I have a recollection of such impenetrable gloom hanging in the air of the entire nation. We could all do with a bit of festive cheer, forgetting the shadow of death looming over the heads — if not of us personally, then surely some or other dearly loved one, who is in the group vulnerable to this disease. No, merely social service or philanthropy will not make the cut to brighten us up in the face of death- we need something more, something greater and transcendent; greater than coronavirus, greater than the vulnerability and the loss of what were norms of life merely six months ago, something that transcends the hilarious human limitations — death, disease, poverty, and gods know what else. It’s a psychological fact that we need something greater than not just our individual selves, but the collective as well, to look up to, to feel optimistic again.
Festivities are such occasions. And that is precisely why Lokamanya began this festival in the first place — to give a fractured, disintegrated public psyche something greater than their selves and their mutual differences so that they could come together.
A fair criticism it would be to ask if this was not what Tablighi Jamaat did too. But that was not the proposition. The proposal is not the same as a gathering of people that the Tablighi event was. It is proposed that Hindus and Lalbaugcha Raja follow the way shown by the Lord of the World, Bhagwan Jagannath of Puri. During the recently concluded Rath Yatra, the religious, spiritual, and cultural rituals and customs were followed to the letter and spirit, the celebrations were as grand as ever. At the same time, the Hindus of Odisha showed immense restraint, discipline, and sacrifice — in not attending the journey of Krishna and his siblings to their aunt’s home.
All the traditional pujas were observed, but only the minimum number of people directly and indispensably needed to carry out the rituals — including pulling the divine family’s chariot — were allowed to come and mark their physical presence. Rest of the bhakta-s solaced themselves with watching it online. I don’t see why a similar model cannot be replicated here, in Mumbai.
Moreover, unlike Puri Yatra, which traditionally has one Rath being pulled carried by people of all the city, Ganesh Chaturthi is a quiet decentralised festival — a substantively large number of people conduct the actual Ganesha worship and rituals chiefly at home. Hence, all the more reason to believe that people have no overwhelmingly compelling reason to violate administrative orders, and crowd the pandal.
While people staying at home and participating in pandal aarti online means that out of the small vendors I had mentioned above, a worryingly large portion would still fall through the cracks, missing out on sales income, the bright side is that at least the artisans and craftsmen would be able to make the ends meet on their own. The economic stimulus thus generated would mean that at least half of the Pandal-dependent economic ecosystem might be able to sustain on their own, halving the number of people dependent on State to help them through these times of destitution.
As to the blood donation, the seemingly noble and virtuous idea might, it is feared, turn out to be a classic case for cure worse than malady. At a time when people breathing each other’s exhaled air seems to be enough to make someone fatally ill, a contamination-less donation camp is Herculean, if not downright impossible; and unlike the Ganeshotsav, this one cannot be livestreamed.
Even a blood donation camp would create an additional problem of safe disposal of biomedical waste — as an IPS officer, I can assure you it is no small task. On a religious and spiritual level, Ganesha is Vighnaharta — one who dispels problems and obstacles. In a time when we’re facing one of the biggest crisis as a collective, certainly, the biggest one our generation has witnessed in our lifetimes, we should cling more dearly to the one who can clear our paths, not abandon him.
Ganesha is Prathama Pujya — the one who is worshipped first. Across the land, and across most of the major sects and sub-sects of Hinduism. This means that he is the harbinger of good times to come, that all good things come only when they see Ganesha has been propitiated.
This time demands that we call authentic Archaka-s from across the land, from the most ancient and esoteric Parampara-s (lineages), and let them work their ethereal magic. For 10 days, encapsulate the financial capital of the country in a grid of constant hawans, homas and japas across the length and breadth of the city. These things are anyway much less prevalent, much less mainstream than they ought to be, in a land which boasts itself of thousands of years of unbroken civilisation.
Enabling the home delivery of Prasadam and Raja’s souvenirs, and online ordering of puja Samagri would further facilitate the stay-at-home observance of the festivities. While most of the households across the nation would definitely be struggling with finances in the COVID times, and the eye of the storm cannot be expected to be an exception, a respectable revenue generation and donation collection wouldn’t be unfounded optimism in the land that places dharma before all else. Paid online darshan can also be considered by the pandal management.
I’d personally suggest that donations thus collected be donated to priests of temples across Maharashtra, whose families are some of the worst-hit in this pandemic and associated lockdown — with almost none of the media and/or NGO attention coming the way of this destitute and socioeconomically vulnerable demography. And, lastly, a reminder from a Yogi: Lalbaugcha Raja is a “Navasa cha Ganpati” — one who fulfils all wishes. In such dire times, let’s invite him into our homes, and persuade him to grant us deliverance from this mega Vighna that is the pandemic, and see if he wouldn’t throw in a couple of wishes in the hat as well because that’s the kind of Being he is.
वक्रतुण्ड महाकाय सूर्यकोटि समप्रभ।
निर्विघ्नं कुरुमेदेव सर्वकार्येषु सर्वदा॥
The writer is an IPS officer who collaborated with Mrinaal Prem Swarroop Srivastava for this piece