Vinayagar Chaturthi

In the beginning of September, India celebrates the birthday of the God Ganesh. Ganesh is probably the most recognizable and most well-known Hindu God outside of India – he’s the one with the elephant head. Like most other Hindu Gods, he has many names. One of them is Vinayagar, and Chaturthi is the celebration of his birthday.

It’s a pretty big festival and we had a day off from school for it, but it’s celebrated much more in the North of the country. I was surprised to see that Snapchat actually had a story for people to post their Ganesh Chaturthi photos and videos to, which could be viewed by Snapchat users around the world.

Here in Pondicherry, Hindus who celebrate the festival (and not all of them do) purchase a clay statue of Ganesh, which are sold by vendors all through the streets, and usually an umbrella to shield him from the sun. The most basic of these umbrellas are made of decorated styrofoam plates, but others are more expertly crafted. They place the statue in the home and adorn him with flowers, give offerings of fruits and other foodstuffs, and pray to Ganesh, sometimes poring milk or oil over the statue and marking one’s forehead with red or white powder. This prayer ritual is known as puja, and during Vinayagar Chaturthi it happens a couple of times a day. On the day of Ganesh’s actual birthday, some people will prepare a special lunch and invite friends or family for puja. The meal will usually include kozhukattai, a sweet made of rice flour and jaggery that is Lord Ganesh’s favorite dessert. As far as Indian sweets go, which usually don’t compare to Western cookies and cakes in my opinion, this one is pretty good.

Many temples will also keep a large statue of Ganesh for the Chaturthi festival, and most often these statues are painted in a bright pink color. People come to pray and give puja and in many temples, they will leave their own small Ganesh statues at base of the large one. In Pondicherry, there is one large temple devoted to Lord Ganesh, and there was long line of people waiting to enter to pray on the Chaturthi day. The temple was decorated with lights, the patron elephant was dressed up for the occasion, and a large light display in the shape of Ganesh hung in the street.

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the lights display outside the temple
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Lakshmi dressed up for the occasion, and a fraction of the crowd of people waiting to get into the temple

After three to five days, people begin to take their Ganesh statues to the sea. Along the beach, extra mounds of earth are added at certain points to accommodate the traction of people and the large weight and size of temple statues being brought to the coast. Traditionally, the statues were taken to the rivers and canals that would irrigate the farmlands. The clay of the statue would return to the earth and the puja offerings adorning it would fertilize the land. Now, in the city, they take the statues to the sea. It is common today for the statues, especially the temple statues, to be painted, but there have been environmental movements against this, as the paint is usually not biodegradable like the traditional unpainted clay.

Some of the bigger statues, especially those from temples, are accompanied to the beach with large processions. The statues ride in the bed of a truck or on a temple chariot, and there may be music played through speakers or by processing musicians. I saw a couple of these processions that included the spirited throwing of color powdered, young boys covered with it, looking as pink as the painted Ganesh. Like this, Ganesh makes his way to the sea for the end of Vinayagar Chaturthi.

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