No Lalbaugcha Raja for first time in 86 yrs of its existence
This Ganpati season, the by-lanes of Lalbaug in south Mumbai’s Chinchpokli will be bereft of the usual rush of devotees waiting for a view of their favourite elephant God. For the first time in the 86 years of its existence, the Lalbaugcha Raja Ganpati Mandal (committee) will not have an idol this year, in view of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Instead, an 11-day blood and plasma donation drive will be held at the Lalbaugcha Raja pandal from August 22. The donation camp will aid health workers in the city in their fight against the virus, said Balasaheb Sudam Kamble, president of the committee.
While the decision is in the interest of the physical-distancing norms set by the government, devotees of ‘bappa’, as he is fondly referred to, are not too happy. Many have thronged the pandal every year for a ‘darshan’ (viewing) or to ask for a ‘mannat’ (wish) but this year, they will be deprived of the trip.
Smita Mestry, a 28-year-old IT professional, has been visiting the Raja every year.
To not be able to visit him this year has upset her. “I have a lot of faith in him. At least they should have placed a smaller idol and allowed a virtual darshan for the devotees,” said the Andheri resident.
The decision was not so simple, according to Santosh Kambli, the chief murtikar or sculptor of Lalbaugcha Raja. “In most other sarvajanik mandals, there are two idols. A smaller one for the puja and the bigger one is for darshan. But in Lalbaug, the 14-feet idol is the one for both,” said Kambli, whose family has been making the idol for Lalbaugcha Raja for three generations and has held a patent for the idol since 2011.
The Maharashtra government had issued guidelines for Ganesh pandals and set the height for all idols at 4 feet. “We cannot reduce the height of the idol as we have been doing puja for 86 years. As we could not build the 14-feet idol, we decided to not have an idol at all,” said Kambli, who has lost around 50% of his business owing to the pandemic.
His 79-year-old father, Ratnakar, who usually adds final touches to the idol and draws the eyes, is sorely missing the ‘bappa’ this year. “He [Lalbaugcha Raja] is not just an idol that we make. He is an emotion for our family,” said Kambli.
Established in 1934 by the fishermen community of Kolis in Chinchpokli, Lalbaugcha Raja or ‘Mannat cha Raja’ (loosely translated as the wish-granting king), has since come to symbolise the Ganpati festival in the city.
Until this year, the mandal had managed to brave the Emergency (1975-77) and the Mumbai riots (1992-93) to set up the 14-feet idol every year. Over 1.5 crore devotees from various parts of the state throng the pandal through the 11 days in hopes of getting their wishes granted. The committee also receives large donations from devotees that are then used in several public service activities. In 2019 alone, the committee received donations to the tune of ₹12 crore.
“The decision to not organise the Ganesh festival this year is understandable as we need to focus on the society at present. But for someone who has not missed visiting the Ganesh idol at Lalbaugh fort the past 47 years, I will miss being part of the festivities this time round,” said Ajinkya Mhatre, 68, a retired banker and Borivali resident.
For Hassan Khan, 30, visiting the Lalbaugcha Raja every year with friends is an emotion. “Ganpati festival is the biggest one in the city and Lalbaugcha Raja is a flavour of the festival, which will be missing this year,” said Khan, a Goregaon resident.