A symbol of good luck, Lord Ganesha protects Indian homes and welcomes visitors with a benevolent smile from his strategic position beside the main door. The remover of obstacles and emblem for new beginnings is the first god invited when pujas are performed. But to me, Ganesha was above all the first familiar icon that I was able to recognize. This simple fact aroused my spontaneous affection, as familiarity was a gift India sporadically offered. Represented by a friendly elephant head on a pot bellied human body, Ganesha tells a fascinating family story. The legend says that Shiva, who went for a long meditation in the Himalayas, left Parvati alone and that she bore a son, Ganesha, to keep her company. When Shiva came back, he found the young man standing in his way, preventing him from entering his own home while Parvati was bathing inside. In a fury, the most powerful god beheaded his unknown son. To answer Parvati’s pleas, he then substituted the missing head with the one of the first young creature out of its mother’s sight. Thus Lord Ganesha was created with an elephant head.
We had arrived in Rajasthan for Ganesh Chaturthi, the Hindu festival celebrating the deity. Nagesh, our driver and soon a member of the family, had told us this was an auspicious sign, as Ganesh should always be invoked at the start of a travel. With him watching over our journey, there would be no obstacle to fear. This also meant that for ten days, we would hear loud celebrations, sometimes until quite late at night, in nearby village houses. Our spontaneous sympathy for the deity seemed to be a shared commodity. For days, solemn religious prayers in Sanskrit were mixed with modern hits from both the East and West, to which the youngest restlessly danced. Doors were kept open for curious eyes to peer into. The celebrations struck our children as the longest party they had ever witnessed, but Nagesh –whose name oddly resembled the God’s– claimed that we had seen nothing until we went to Mumbai to witness the most elaborate of the Chaturthi celebrations.
Despite the progressive musical anticipation, the last day of Ananta Chaturdashi surprised us with its intensity. The sacred clay idols, brought into Hindu homes on the first day of September, were to go back to the water where they belonged. At sunset, whole communities walked to nearby lakes and rivers, still full from the monsoon waters. Processions carried decorated Lord Ganesha statues in their arms, joyfully singing and dancing to accompany the departure of the God.
In the small town named Bundi, celebrations took place all around the wide Jait Sagar Tank. Crowds had gathered, forming small compact groups at flights of stairs, the borders between earth and water. Women were in charge of holding Lord Ganesha tight into their maternal arms. As they reached the waterfront in elegant red saris, they put the God down and surrounded him with respect, flowers, sweets and vermilion powder, generous offerings to the beloved one. Other members of the family, all praying with devotion, repeated those affectionate gestures, reaching out to the sacred flame.
Suddenly, the time had come to say goodbye and hand the idol to bare chested men in charge of carrying the God further away in the lake. Crowds applauded and shouted mantras with joy, soon echoed by the neighboring ghats.
The largest idols, worshipped by whole communities, were surrounded with love and excitement. Not just dozens, but hundreds of people joined processions for their departure. The most impressive celebrations are said to happen in Maharashtra, the state of Mumbai. Yet, in the small town of Bundi, teenagers use the religious ceremony as a pretext to enjoy, jump and joke around near the lake, throwing colors at each other and shouting loudly. This year, our kids were involved in the celebrations, as they easily mingled with the local youth and came back to us covered in purple powder.
As darkness fell on those innocent games, honoured men dove into the deep waters of the lake and swam in harmony, alongside rose petals, candles and gods. Their smiling faces, eyes to the sky, revealed rare touches of ecstasy.