The #DashboardGods of Mumbai

It all started off with me spotting Lord Ganesha in a dragonboat, sitting pretty on the dashboard of the Uber I got into on a September morning in 2018. That’s a rather unusual Ganesha you have, I mentioned to the cab driver.

That was all it needed to get the driver talking. Appasaheb, that was his name, liked unusual designs and was very particular about what he surrounded himself with. Like the Ganesha in the dragonboat he had picked up from a shop in central Mumbai — he knew it would be perfect to adorn his cab dashboard. The conversation flowed and when I arrived at my destination, I was surprised to find that 40 minutes had elapsed.

A few days later, I was in a cab again and the first thing I noticed was the Ganesha on the dashboard, this time with a mini parasol. Like with Appasaheb, I got chatting with Sanjay, the cab driver. Thereafter, it became a habit to look at the dashboard as soon as I got into a cab and chat with the cab driver about the God placed there.

Little did I realise about the significance of that conversation with Appasaheb. What began as a series of fun capture about the Gods on cab dashboards soon turned to random shares on Instagram Stories. But over weeks and then months, these shares turned into an entire series with its own hashtag called #DashboardGod and conversations which I did not share.

To initiate a conversation, all I had to say was, “Where did you get the <insert name of the #DashboardGod> from?” The answers were surprisingly varied — gift, from a pilgrimage site, from mother/father/wife, and so on. What was not surprising was that the maximum number of #DashboardGods was that of Ganesha, Mumbai’s favourite God. Richly adorned or plain, decked with fresh flowers or plastic flowers, with an umbrella cover or not, turbanned or without a head cover, Ganesha reigned supreme on the dashboard.

Which is not really surprising as Ganesha is the remover of obstacles. And traffic jams are obstacles, right? 😉

Presenting a selection of the dashboard Ganeshas. You will notice that no two dashboard Ganeshas are alike; for that matter no two #DashboardGods are the same. Do click on the first picture — it is the one that started it all — and then use the arrow keys to see details of the others. Do come back to see the other #DashboardGods.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, I came across Devi as a #DashboardGod only once. When I mentioned this to some of the cab drivers, all I got was a bemused shrug — almost as if to say how does it even matter. Only one driver replied and rather snidely at that: “Surely you don’t expect us drivers to put faith in some woman, even if she is a Goddess. Everyone knows that women can’t drive.”

I didn’t argue with him for I don’t drive a car, but I did the next best thing — I gave him a poor rating and explained why I did it. (Yes, I’m mean that way)

I found the idea of two #DashboardGods most interesting. The reason given by the cab drivers was that this was done to keep all members of the family happy. And besides, too many Gods never hurt anyone, right? Presenting a selection of the multiple #DashboardGods. Do click on the first picture and then swipe to see details of the others in this lot. There are more #DashboardGods to see, so do come back to read the rest of the post.

Then there was a small number of #DashboardGods who were not really Gods in the strictest sense, but are considered as one by their believers. Chhatrapati Shivaji, Samarth Ramdas Swami (Shivaji’s spiritual Guru), Swami Samarth of Akkalkot (considered by believers to be an incaarnation of Lord Dattatreya),  Gajanan Maharaj (considered by followers to be an incarnation of Lord Dattatreya), Swaminarayan (also known as Sahajanand Swami and considered by followers as a manifestation of God), and Sahib Bandagi.

Sahib Bandagi was the only ‘God’ I was not aware of. The cab driver enlightened me — this is a spiritual organisation led by Sant Satguru Madhu Paramhans Sahibji who is called Sahibji by his disciples as he is the founder of this organisation. When I mentioned my ignorance about this organisation to the driver, this was his response:

“I’m glad that this is not a mass movement with people flocking and running for darshan and favours like it is with Sai Baba. Lesser the number of people knowing about Sahib Bandagi, the better. Only then can true believers persist and flourish.”

Do click on the first picture and then swipe to see details of the others in this lot.

Most of the Christian drivers did not have a #DashboardGod; a rosary on the rearview mirror is what was most common. There were three exceptions and I have shared the images of all below: Mother Mary and the infant Jesus, a crucifix and St. Michael (?). The drivers professing Islam were the ones whose dashboards were bare; only a few had charms or talismans hung across the rearview mirror or stuck on the dashboard.

Do click on the first picture and then swipe to see details of the others in this lot. We are not done with the #DashboardGods, so do come back to read the rest of the post.

The cab drivers with the Buddha as #DashboardGods had the most amazing stories to share. One of them told me of his pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya and how he picked up a crystal Buddha to be placed on his cab’s dashboard.

I don’t believe in idol worship, but when I saw this crystal Buddha there were strong vibrations emanating from it and I had to get it. This is the only idol I have and this is the only one I will ever have. I don’t need anything else or anybody else. The Buddha guides me in my thoughts and action. My driving, my interaction with you. See the light shining through it. Can there be anything purer than this?

The second cab driver had picked up his Buddha #DashboardGod during Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations in Mumbai a couple of years back. But he wanted to get one from Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur for, according to him, the best and most genuine Buddhas were to be found only at that place. He was saving up to go there and was hopeful of making it to Deekshabhoomi before the end of 2019.

I had only one instance of a Sikh cab driver and he personified everything that is cliched about people from Punjab. He was jovial, had a great sense of humour, played some foot tapping music, and his infectious enthusiasm rubbed off on to me even though I was at my grumpy best on a Monday morning. When I asked him about his #DashboardGod he said he had nothing to do with it. He personally didn’t believe in God or any form of the divine. It was his mother who insisted that the DashboardGod be placed in his car.

And you know what mothers are like, right? If I hadn’t agreed, she would have spanked me. Oh yes she would have. You don’t know my mother. I may not believe in God, but I believe in my mother.

Initially, the conversations with the cab drivers were only about the #DashboardGods. But slowly, the conversations expanded to other topics — dreams, hopes, aspirations for the future, family, Mumbai, their native places. And faith. With the exception of a few, most were happy to talk about their faith or lack of.

One of the questions I always asked was why did they need the #DashboardGods. The question stumped most of them for they had not thought about it at all. Then answers like “it is the practice” to “how can there be no God in the car” to “my family wants it for my protection” to “I want it for my protection” would slowly tumble out. One driver said that he didn’t need the #DashboardGod for his protection; rather he needed it for the protection of other drivers who may or may not have a #DashboardGod of their own ! Some drivers said that the #DashboardGods were not just their protectors, but also their constant companions and support on long and lonely rides.

Faith comes in many forms and the DashboardGods are just one of its many manifestations. It is a visual culture of everyday life in a city like Mumbai where interactions are many, but lasting connections are few. And in a city where most of the cab drivers are far away from their families, it is the #DashboardGods that are a constant in their lives.


Notes:

  1. All the #DashboardGods featured here, with one exception are from Uber rides between September 2018 and April 2019 in Mumbai.
  2. All photographs were taken only after the driver gave permission to do so. Since the vehicles were on the move, most of the photographs are not clear.
  3. Over a 100 #DashboardGods were photographed, though only a fraction has been shared here.

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13 thoughts on “The #DashboardGods of Mumbai

  1. Nice collection.. I do a similar thing with auto interior prints..
    With respect to cabs, am ok with God’s , but the minute I see flowers I start panicking..cos I hated em and worst is Jasmine..the smell(yes not fragrance ) suffocates and makes me wanna throw up.. sigh…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Aarti. Yes, I have seen your auto print posts. Haven’t seen it for a while though – have I missed your recent posts?

      BTW, have you seen Rachel Lopez’s posts on Mumbai’s Kaali Peeli Taxi ceilings? They are absolutely brilliant.

      Like

  2. 🙂 I too ‘ve this habit of striking conversations with auto/cab drivers. I too always think of the logic behind keeping a God on dashboard. But I choose to keep quiet bcoz sometimes it can be tricky here in Hyderabad. Good write up. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome here, Sujaman. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting your appreciation.

      Yes, it can be difficult striking a conversation with cabbies and rickshaw drivers. Even in my experience with #DashboardGods not all of them were forthcoming and I did not insist. I would always take the conversation forward based on each response.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a splendid observation… so amazing that a simple question spawned so much- the hashtags, the insights into religion, mindset, culture and more! Excellent points and a fabulous post (as always!)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this series with the dashboard of Gods and Goddesses on the cabs in Mumbai. Doesn’t it echo the true spirit of cab travel in Mumbai, something that we can spot for the first time? Glad you wrote about it and the anecdotes. The only minus, of course, is the sexism surrounding women…our country needs to change its attitude and it’s such a huge challenge.

    Like

    1. Thank you so much for the appreciation, Vishal. I’m very happy that this post resonated with you and with so many others as well. Yes, #DashboardGods does talk about the spirit of Mumbai, but I would say that this is a pan Indian thing, with regional variations. I’m going to be more observant when I travel to other parts of the country from now on.:)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sudha, I enjoyed reading this for so many reasons and at so many levels. I have always been fascinated by DashboardGods and you have crafted such a wonderful account and shared your observations with us. I always see them and have my own assumptions of how and why they may have a God there, but there is so much more and hearing it from the drivers and all the wonderful insights it must have led to tickles the ethnographer in me. I loved all those photos and quotes and was pretty miffed at one of the responses on not having a Devi for a dashboard (I’d have given a super poor rating myself too). Thank you for sharing this Sudha! 🙂

    Like

    1. Thank you so much, Priya.

      I’m quite reticent by nature and rarely initiate conversations with starangers. But I’m also extremely curious so it is always a battle between these two sides of me. More often than not, the former wins, but this time curiosity took over. And aren’t I happy about the results? I hope to be able to take this forward and collect stories from other parts of India. Let’s see how this shapes up.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Such interesting back stories to the dashboard gods. I noticed them on your timeline and started observing the same. I see it is an interesting conversation starter too.

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