Roadside shrines are a common sight all over India. They can be anything from a tree, to a stone with eyes painted on it, to small stone idols placed under a tree, to a framed picture of a god or a holy man/woman, a cross, a grave of a pir… In my experience, the concentration of such shrines is the highest in cities, and Mumbai is no exception. I am no longer surprised when I come across them in the most unexpected of places; I do, however, get surprised only when I don’t see any.
But today morning, I came across a shrine that surprised me, stopped me in my tracks, made me have a good look, and then come home and write about it. Do let me tell you more about it.
I have been having some work in the Gandhi Market area, near King’s Circle in Mumbai this entire week. Once my work is done, I walk to King’s Circle to take a bus home. It is a short walk and I pass three well-maintained roadside shrines to reach my bus stop. The sharp contrast between the well-maintained and clean shrines and the squalid dwellings of the pavement dwellers who look after the shrines is what I have been noticing day after day.
Today, I noticed something else as well at one of the shrines – I saw that the tree trunk of one of the shrines was painted. And how !
It is Ganeshotsav or Ganpati time in Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra and . And depending on how one looks at it, this is a time for holidays, modaks, new beginnings, traffic jams, crowded market places, laddoos, discounts, devotion… For me, it is an explosion of creativity.
From the time Bal Gangadhar Tilak turned the annual family level Ganeshotsav to a community level event in 1893, Lord Ganesha became everyone’s favourite deity. This also meant that, over the decades, the Ganpati idols got more creative with each passing year and the Ganesh pandals became opportunities to highlight social issues, or creative talent in presenting Ganeshas made from ice, different types of grasses or cereals, vegetables, fruits, papier-mache, etc.
It is not just Ganpati Pandals that get creative; shopping malls and departmental stores get into the act too. It was at a well-known departmental store that I saw one of the most unusual and creative Ganpati idols last year.
It was the day after Dussera in Varanasi last year. Around 2.00 pm. I had just returned to my hotel at Chausatti Ghat on the banks of the River Ganga after a morning at Sarnath and then wandering and photographing in the alleys near my hotel. As I entered my room, I heard the sounds of drum beats and conch shells. In a place like Varanasi, this really should not have been unusual, and besides it was the festive season. But 2.00 in the afternoon was rather unusual for such sounds.
I grabbed my camera and rushed to the balcony. As I peered over the railing of my 3rd floor balcony, I saw a group of people bringing idols for visarjan (immersion).
I was a little surprised as, traditionally, Durga visarjan should have ended the previous day that is, on Dussera. But as the hotel manager told me later, the ghats along the Ganges get extremely crowded on Dussera day, leading to some visarjans taking place even 2–3 days after Dussera !