Ganesh Chaturthi is a festival celebrating Ganesh, the elephant headed god and usually takes place at the beginning of September. To his devotees, Ganesh is believed to be the god of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune and is traditionally called upon at the beginning of any new venture or the start of travel. The celebration lasts for ten days, but the preparations for it begin long in advance. Artists create massive statues of the elephant god to be placed in specially created structures, mandapas (pandals) that are built in every neighborhood. The pandals are built by a variety of people, including specific societies set up in preparation for the Ganesh festival or a neighborhood by collecting monetary contributions. These pandals are decorated for the festival, by using flower garlands, lights, or theme-based decorations, which depict religious or current events. For ten days the people of the area present offerings to the god as well as entertain him by playing music non-stop. On the 11th day, the neighborhood comes together and has a celebration filled with singing, dancing, some extremely loud drum music and a procession that leads the Ganesh statue to the nearest body of water. The statue is then submerged into the water to symbolize the god going back to his home and taking with him all the misfortunes of his followers.
I am lucky enough to be in Hyderabad during this celebration and trust me the Indians go all out for Ganesh. The pandales seem to pop up overnight in all the neighborhoods covered with twinkling lights and blaring Indian devotional music twenty four hours a day in Ganesh’s honor. I really don’t know how anyone gets any sleep because that music is ear splitting! Walking around the local neighborhoods, I felt like I was back at Bucknell in a frat house basement except for the fact that Indians obviously don’t play dubstep.
On the 8th day of the festival, which was Thursday, our CIEE coordinators took us to see a 55 foot tall Ganesh statue made entirely out of natural products. This was revolutionary for this festival because most of the statues are made of plastic or other not so environmentally friendly materials. The push for an eco- friendly Ganesh makes sense to me because the tradition of submerging the god into the water to symbolically send him on is way, in reality means leaving a 55 foot plastic statue in the water forever.
On Saturday my Indian friend from one of my classes invited me to go to his friend’s neighborhood celebration as well as see the submersion of many Ganesh idols into the nearby lake. This invitation turned out to be quite the adventure.
Since most students on the campus do not have cars, the most efficient means of transportation besides a bike is a motorcycle. My friends and I were excited about the idea of riding on motorcycles but in reality we had no idea what to expect.
Riding on a motorcycle in India can only be described as something out of a video game. We were probably on the bike for a good hour before we reached the destination and it was an hour filled of “girly” screams as my friend Bhanu wove through traffic at 60 kph or 40 mph. The ride was absolutely terrifying but a completely thrilling experience.
Once we reached the neighborhood the event organizer and the entire neighborhood greeted us. It was a little overwhelming to say the least. But that is when the real fun started. Someone must have told them that four white girls were coming to their Ganesh celebration and so after we looked at the neighborhood’s Ganesh statue, we were pushed into the center of the dancing circle and enthusiastically encouraged to dance for the entire neighborhood. It was an unreal experience. The beating of the drums didn’t stop for almost two hours and I am pretty sure we were dancing for almost one hour and fifty-seven minutes of it. When the drummers decided it was time for a break all four of us looked at each other with pretty much the same facial expressions, pure exhaustion. After a short ten-minute break the drummers started back up again and the neighbors were calling to us to come back and dance with them. One of them yelled that they were going to continue dancing until two in the morning. I really do not understand how anyone could dance continuously with that much energy for more than three hours maximum. Our guides must have gotten the hint that we were ready to leave so somehow we snuck away and avoided being brought back into the middle of the dance circle.
From the neighborhood, we drove to the lake that sits in almost the middle of Hyderabad. It is where the giant Buddha statue sits and it is also the place where the Ganesh statues are submerged. This was much more crazy then being in the neighborhood because thousands of people were crowded around the lake watching their family’s Ganesh be submerged in the water.
The submerging process is not as simple as it sounds. First of all, most of the statues are at least ten feet tall so you can’t exactly fit them into a car. Instead people rent flat bed trucks to carry their Ganesh to the water. These flat bed trucks are decked out with decorations, just like the mandapas that the statue has been sitting in for ten days. Along with the statue on the flat bed truck,there are the majority of the neighborhood people dancing and singing along to the devotional music. They throw flowers and rice off the trucks at people passing by and especially around the lake we got pelted with flowers from all directions. It was quite the experience! Once the truck makes it to the lake, the statue is lifted off the truck by a HUGE construction crane and then submerged in to the water. Everyone cheers and dances before, during and after their statue is submerged. The Indians really know how to party!
After watching the submersion of the idols, our friends took us to see another GIANT Ganesh, which I think was at least 70 feet tall. The crowds of people that were around this statue were unreal. I felt like I was in the middle of Time Square on New Year’s Eve. There were thousands of people pushing their way toward this giant statue to worship and present offerings as well as others selling paper horns, plastic drums and other goods to be used in the celebration of sending Ganesh home. Our Indian friends were very concerned about our safety because of the amount of people that were around and they kept pulling on our hands to hurry us up if we began to lag behind. It was very endearing.
After this we decided it was time to head home, so we climbed back on the motorcycles and began our journey back to campus. I figured it was going to be similar to the ride there, lots of traffic, horns and people but because it was so late, I think most of the people were either at the lake submerging their Ganesh, or still celebrating in their homes because there was no one on the roads. Our friend Bhanu took it upon himself to get us back to campus in the fastest possible manner so he proceeded to drive 100 kph or about 60 mph all the way home. This would have been fine if we had some protection for our eyes and faces but instead we all got hit with large amounts of diesel exhaust from the trucks we zoomed past. We got back to campus in record time and both Emily and I were absolutely exhausted.
We didn’t realize how much stuff had collected on our faces until one of our friends asked us if we had put dirt on our faces as part of the ceremony. At that moment we both ran to the shower to cleanse ourselves of the Indian city life. It was absolutely unreal how much grim had collected on me. I probably will have to shower a few more times to get it all off!
This experience was one of the most amazing things I’ve done in India. Although I haven’t traveled a lot to experience the many different parts of India, I have to remind myself that Hyderabad is a huge city and I have only experienced a small portion of it. You don’t have to go far to have an adventure of a lifetime.
peace, love, laughter