If I were to be allowed to celebrate only one religious or cultural festival in a year, it would be Ganesh Chavithi. Ganesh (also called Ganesha or Ganapathi or Vinayaka) is the Hindu God who removes obstacles. Chavithi or Chaturthi is the fourth day after the new moon. Ganesha has a weakness for food. When he was named the God who Removes Obstacles (Vighnaraja) after winning a competition (using wisdom, not might) with his brother, he ate so much that his tummy burst open. The crescent moon who sat in his father Shiva’s hair locks laughed at him. Not liking this, Parvathi, Ganesha’s mother brought him back to life and at the same time, cursed the moon that anyone who sees his face on Ganesh Chavithi day without praying to Ganesha will encounter many obstacles and undeserving blame and insults. That’s the short version. Wisdom. Weakness. Mockery. Consequence. Remedy. Humility, in the end.
My maternal grandfather taught us how to pray to Ganesha on this day. Ganesha gives you knowledge, artistic talent and wisdom. You pray to Ganesha first before beginning anything new because he will make sure things go smoothly. Ganesha likes grass, sugarcane, wild flowers and fruit – so, you get them from the fields and use them to decorate the altar. Because Ganesha will make sure you study well and get good grades, you keep your school books in front of him on Ganesh Chavithi so that he will bless them. You read Ganesha’s story and do eleven ‘gunjilu’, a special form of squats in which you cross your arms and hold the opposite ear lobes and squat down and get up. That’s a way of asking God for forgiveness. They say that these squats also improve circulation to the brain.
Of all Hindu Gods, Ganesha lends himself to most amount of art. Paintings, jewelry, sculptures, you name it. Several clothing and fashion brands use Ganesha motifs, including a Judith Leiber clutch purse in the shape of Ganesha in a golden frame and multicolor Austrian crystal beads. Ganesh Navratri (nine days devoted to him beginning the Chavithi day) are some of the busiest days in Indian streets because there are Ganesh statues at prominent intersections and it’s a time of many social gatherings and cultural activities. Neighborhoods compete to install the tallest and the most beautiful statues in the city. On the ninth day, the statues are taken in a large procession to the nearest body of water, lake or river or a pond, and let go in the water. The invariable unintended consequence of this tradition is that the water bodies near cities become polluted with the wires and the paints that are used to make the statues. Eco-friendly statues and figurines and customized eco-savvy traditions are emerging and need acceleration. I make my own Ganesha with flour, a skill my mom’s sister taught me. The next day after the prayer, I leave him in a bowl of water in my backyard and once he dissolves, I pour the water among plants.
One of the most frequent questions I get is why Ganesha has an elephant head. According to legend, Parvathi makes a boy figurine using bath scrub and gives him life. She instructs him to not let strangers into the house. When Shiva comes home and doesn’t recognize the boy who doesn’t allow him inside his own home, he gets angry and beheads him. That’s horrifying, right? One of my sisters-in-law has a better way of telling this story. When Shiva comes home and meets his son, he decides that his son needs a more powerful head to allow him to be an obstacle remover for the world, and replaces his human head with an elephant’s head. That’s the story.
To new beginnings!