He is almost omnipresent, in every nook and cranny of the city and in most homes. You are likely to encounter one just anywhere and you can’t miss the deity because in most cases, the idols are right there on the busiest of streets, having appropriated the road space.
Ganesh Chaturthi: it was not always like this
The city takes Him seriously; even the civic body takes steps not to incur His wrath. They make sure the road is smoothened by filling up potholes at least for His arrival and departure – arrival a few days to few hours prior to the Ganesh Chaturthi and departure any first, third, fifth, seventh and ninth day up to, and inclusive of, Ananth Chaturthi.
Never mind the anger and the bleats of the citizens complaining about the pot-holed roads that are an everyday part of Mumbai. The civic authorities ignore it. But come Ganapati time, everyone jumps into the act, the state government even informally monitors the pothole-filling. If only He visited Mumbai more often!
So much so, the bringing down of the flyover at Lalbaug had everything to do with the Lalbaughcha Raja. It inconvenienced His departure to the Chowpatty for immersion and therefore, it was broken down and a new one which arches a longer span, giving Him better headroom, has been put in place – from Hindmata to the zoo. Officials will deny this but they know the secret.
His departure, as is His stay at public places, is noisy, noisy enough to tear one’s eardrums. The most felt presence of the Lord is as he departs; the entire city comes to a halt, all beaches are taken over, and amid the sounds of kettle drums and other percussion drums, he wends his way. No traffic dare try to use the roads. It is his entirely His day.
But this public worship is not how it all started. Its history is traced to Lokmanya Balgangadhar Tilak, who took the idol out of homes where the deity was quietly worshipped and put them on public platforms in 1892. Mumbai followed only the next year. The credit goes to Keshavji Naik Chawl in Girgaon where He was celebrated much the same way over a century ago. Tilak even visited it that year.
The idol there is not 15-plus feet tall; it is barely two feet. It does not need a truck and a forklift or a crack to move; it is amenable to be easily carried on a palanquin. It is not garish with the invested vulgarity of the past few decades but with panache of the old times. Despite his relatively puny size, He stands different and tall amid the city’s Sarvajanik idols.
The celebrations’ content has changed. It is no longer a platform for gathering people to listen to and participate in discourses on nationalistic, pro-Independence issues which Tilak created. Once India became Independent, it had no such use anymore. But it remained as a tradition but only in its run as an annual event. It has, of course, a political content, but rather the perverse one.