Visions of colourful idols elaborately lit and decorated pandals, gorging on delicious sweet dumplings, and offerings of hibiscus flowers amidst the backdrop of hymns chanted with friends and family are what make up my childhood memories of Ganesh Chaturthi. An auspicious Hindu festival held annually in honour of the elephant-god Ganesh, it is one of India’s most magnificent festivals. Ganesh Chaturthi, which marks the successful completion of new activities, is celebrated with much pomp and show especially in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The grand celebration involves installing and worshipping images of Lord Ganesh in elaborately decorated pandals. On the last day of the 10-day extravaganza, devotees immerse idols in a large body of water, usually a sea, river or lake.
As I grew older and perhaps wiser, the idea of the festival changed from being a social fiesta of endless eating and drinking to one of environmental consciousness—an aspect of the festival that I had overlooked for years suddenly gained new significance.
Lately, several environmental implications have been raised over the issue of immersing manmade plaster-of-Paris, plastic or cement idols in the open water. Other accessories like cloth, incense and camphor are also carelessly dumped in the water as part of the festivities. These toxic elements take months to fully disintegrate, reduce oxygen levels in the water, and kill fish and other aquatic organisms. Moreover, the paint used to adorn these idols contains non-biodegradable heavy metals like mercury, lead and cadmium, which seep into the water and pollute it. All this leads to the blocking of the natural flow of water, which has further repercussions in terms of the breeding of mosquitoes and other harmful pests. This causes skin and other hazardous water-borne diseases.
With an increase in the awareness of the ritual’s harmful effects on human and marine life, more and more people I know are resorting to eco-friendly alternatives for idol immersion. Many families now let traditional, artisan-made earthen statues disintegrate in a bucket of water, and later spread the mud in their home garden. Increasingly, idols are also being made of organic items like coconuts, papier mache and raw vegetables, and are decorated using biodegradable objects like flower garlands, turmeric and leaf paste. Some devotees symbolically immerse a permanent stone-and-brass icon or recycle plaster idols to repaint and reuse the following year. One of the latest innovative methods also involves making edible Ganesh idols out of chocolate, which once immersed in milk, is distributed to underprivileged children! In this way, environmental damage is being considerably reduced, truly representing a natural cycle of creation and dissolution.