What do you associate with Ganeshotsav — modaks, pandal-hopping, the exuberant mayhem of visarjan day?
What about idlis, meat and alcohol? Miniature silver telephones and carom boards? Or a Gauri idol who is joined by an idol of her friend?
In a city like Mumbai, there is no one way to celebrate. And that holds true for the beloved, child-like pot-bellied form that is its favourite deity.
So, across the city, migrant communities continue to celebrate with customs that have roots in the crops they grew, the foods they bonded over, the ways in which they communicated their faith to their children.
It is, after all, a festival of family reunions, as Gauri comes to earth to see her son being worshipped, says Prachi Moghe, professor of ancient Indian culture and archaeology at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. “So whatever you have, whatever you enjoy as a community, you share with the benevolent deity.”
Does your family have a unique Ganesha custom too? Write in to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll share your stories with the city.
* Installed at dawn, immersed at midnight
When all you have is one day, you work extra hard to make it count.
So it is in the homes of some Goud Saraswat Brahmins from Karnataka, who immerse their idol the same day they instal it (most devotees celebrate a minimum of 1.5 days).
In that one day, they hold a special ranga pooja that involves 21 silver diyas, each shaped like a different object of significance. Thus one looks like the hood of a snake, another like a sacred conch.
“My 93-year-old grandfather says the term here comes from the Sanskrit word for ‘stage’. We set up a small one on which a red cloth is spread out,” says Ashwini Prabhu, 27, a process manager and resident of King’s Circle. “For the pooja, 21 coconuts are broken and placed alongside 21 betel stalks, 21 betel nuts, 21 bananas, 21 pieces of sugarcane, and 21 lighted earthen diyas, all of which is placed on 21 banana leaves.”
From the time the deity is installed at 10 am until midnight, when it leaves the house for immersion, smaller poojas are conducted by the family priest.
The Prabhus have been celebrating the festival in this manner for 51 years.
“The ‘Gana’ in Ganesha means ‘group’. The sum total of the five senses, five elements, five sensations, five functions and the buddhi or mind become a group of 21 that we pray to Ganpati to protect,” says Pandit M Narasimha Acharya of the GSB Seva Mandal, originally from Mangalore.
* Idlis in place of modaks
Shobha Raikar, 75, a Daivadnya Brahmin who hails from the coastal village of Colva in south Goa and now lives in Malad, remembers her mother and grandmother making rice cakes for Ganeshotsav. She still makes idlis every year.
This is a popular tradition among Daivadnya Brahmins, a community from south Goa and northern Karnataka, regions where rice is a staple.
“Instead of modaks, we offer our idol sanna, a rice cake that is an essential element of traditional Goan cuisine,” says Babita Lolitkar, 47, a homemaker also from south Goa. “It’s hard to make sanna, so now most people buy idli batter and just make one big idli.”
A sweet version is offered to the deity, a savoury one eaten at lunch. Paddy is also cut and worshipped alongside Ganesha. "This is because of the vital importance of this crop to the community," says Prachi Moghe, professor of ancient Indian culture and archaeology at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
* A feast of meat, fish, eggs — and alcohol
In a departure from the ban on meat and alcohol during auspicious periods, Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhus, originally from Kashmir, mark their Ganeshotsav with precisely these elements.
Vibhuti Kulkarni, 33, an entrepreneur from Thane, says she was surprised when she married and discovered that in addition to the non-vegetarian delicacies she had grown up celebrating with, her husband's family had a bowl of Scotch in their thali. “That was a shock,” she says, laughing. “And everyone takes a sip, including the kids.”
The warrior class, in order to augment their martial prowess, indulged in meat and alcohol, adds professor Prachi Moghe of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. “We usually refer to the goddess as Tikhat Gauri, or the goddess who likes spicy food, especially meat,” says homemaker Seema Karkhanis, 40, a Mira Road resident.
Since the community originated in Kashmir, the offering of alcohol and meat may be remnants of Shakta practices, adds Moghe. “Every deity is worshipped with offerings of the community's own favourite food items, and this seems to be the case here too.”
* A universe of silver toys for Bappa
Some idols truly have it all: from a miniature steam iron and a postbox to mobile and landline telephones, carom boards and cricket pitches, SUVs, helicopters, army tanks and pistols.
Ganesha celebrations in Pathare Prabhu households are unique for the universe they build around their deities, usually in handcrafted, bespoke silverware.
The collection is added to each year, as the adoring family goes out ahead of the festival to buy their pot-bellied deity something new. The items are then taken out of storage or showcase, polished to a shine and laid out.
“Our family has collected more than 200 objects over 100 years, including a monkey on a tree and a water heater,” says retired banker Satish Dhairyawan, 76, a Kandivli resident. “Every year, we add at least two objects to the khel [toy] collection. Most objects are just an inch in height.”
The trinkets help the children of the family relate to and engage with the deity, says Pedder Road resident Rahul Velkar, 49, a restaurateur and Pathare Prabhu devotee.
“In our house, we have two Ganpatis — one that is revered and off-limits to kids, and a second that has this dollhouse-like arrangement, so that the children can join in the traditions early on,” he says.
Traditionally, the practice has its roots in the fact that Pathare Prabhus, believed to have roots in Magadha, Bihar, worship Bal Ganesh, the deity in child form, says Prachi Moghe of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
“As children, I remember my cousins and I playing with the silver utensils, cooking make-believe delicacies for Ganpati," says telecom executive Shamal, 36, Satish’s daughter. "My grandmother even brought some silver miniatures to the house as part of her trousseau.”
* Two Gauris, mother and her friend
The goddess Gauri is often worshipped during Ganeshotsav, as mother of the deity. She is believed to come to earth to see her son worshipped, in a festival that is also thus a family reunion.
But among Deshastha Brahmins — originally from the Deccan plateau — there are two Gauris worshipped: Jyeshtha Gauri, the goddess Parvati and mother of Ganpati; and Kanishtha, her friend.
As Gauri is believed to be returning to her maternal home, her friend comes to meet her, explains homemaker Kshama Kulkarni, 68, a resident of Vile Parle.
“Perhaps they represent Gauri and her sakhi, or female companion, called Malini, who is mentioned in the 13th-century manuscript Haracharitachintamani,” says mythologist and author Devdutt Pattanaik, in his book 99 Thoughts on Ganesha. "Some are of the opinion that the two Gauris perhaps do not represent Ganesha’s mother but represent instead his wives.”
Intriguingly, the sakhi is already in the house when Gauri is welcomed with haldi and kumkum.
“In our home, two brass mukhas or faces on stands are kept in bowls of wheat and rice. These were traditionally taken from the new harvest. They are draped in saris and adorned in traditional jewellery such as the nose ring and mangalsutra,” Kulkarni says. The bowls signify the deities’ stomachs.
Eventually, Kulkarni shakes the faces, which signifies that the goddess has left. The metallic faces are cleaned and re-used every year.
(HT photos: Pratham Gokhale & Pramod Thakur)