Isn’t it ironic that a beloved deity symbolic of new beginnings and removal of obstacles has clogged our lakes and tanks and littered our coastlines? Traditionally, Ganesh or Ganpati idols were made of earth, which dissolved easily in the water in which they were immersed during visarjan. Over time, as the magnitude of celebrations grew, mud and clay made way for Plaster of Paris, a cheaper and lighter gypsum-based binding material that degrades very slowly. Also, the vegetable dyes that were traditionally used to color idols were replaced with chemical-based coloring agents and lead-based paints, which leach toxins into the water causing serious health hazards. On the eve of Ganesh Chaturthi, we raise a familiar question again: Should we celebrate at such great cost to the environment? Or will you make a small but significant difference this year?
An artisan applies finishing touches to an idol of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh, the deity of prosperity, in Jammu. Though earthen clay was traditionally used to prepare the idols, it has now given way to cheaper and lighter Plaster of Paris. The cost to the environment, however, is much higher. Unlike clay, which disintegrates naturally in water easily, Plaster of Paris degrades very slowly and remains for days in the water.
The ten-day-long Ganesh Chaturthi festival, marking the birth of Lord Ganesh, is celebrated in September. Crowds of devotees take idols in procession to be immersed in water bodies, bringing entire cities to a standstill. Traditionally, soil taken from near the devotee’s home was used to fashion the idol and its immersion in water symbolized the natural cycle of creation and dissolution.
Plaster of Paris has replaced earthen clay as the preferring material for constructing Ganesh idols. Bulk orders are taken over a year in advance and it takes months to complete fashioning the idols. Some variations of plaster contain powdered silica or asbestos, which may cause serious health hazards if inhaled. Asbestos inhalation has been known to cause cancer, as well as asbestosis, a chronic respiratory disease of the lungs. Inhaled silica can cause silicosis, making affected people susceptible to tuberculosis.
Ganpati Utsav is arguably the most important festival in Maharashtra. While observance of the festival dates back many hundreds of years, it was the nationalist and freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak who revived it on a grand scale in 1893. Millions celebrate the festival and Ganpatis of all sizes ranging from the diminutive palm-sized to colossi mounted on trucks are taken in jubilant processions for immersion in large water bodies.
A Ganesha idol gets a lick of paint. Idols were typically colored with vegetable dyes and natural colors. Of late, they have given way to brighter and more colorful chemical paints, which contain heavy metals like mercury and cadmium. Exposure to these chemicals is fraught with health hazards for the artisans along with the potential risk of polluting water when the idols immersed.
An exhausted young artisan sleeps in divine company. Thousands of artisans slave away at sweatshops in the months leading up to the celebrations. They work with constant exposure to asbestos and silica dust and toxic chemicals in paints.
A finished idol awaits a buyer in Jammu, northern India. Paints containing oxides of mercury, zinc and lead are applied on the idols together with “thinner”, a petroleum product. Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated as the birthday of Lord Ganesha, who is widely worshiped as the god of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune.
A schoolgirl admires a creative interpretation of the Ganesha idol in Hyderabad. The idols will be immersed into oceans and rivers at the end of the festival. In the city of Mumbai alone, an estimated 1.91 lakh idols were immersed in 2010.
A gigantic Ganesh idol is readied for the dais. The decorated idols are placed in enormous marquees known as pandals over a ten-day festive period marked by worship and cultural celebrations. At the end of the festival the idols, some even larger than this one, are immersed in large water bodies.
Nearly every Hindu family in Maharashtra keeps an idol of Ganesh during the festival period that lasts ten days. Here, a family takes its newly purchased idol home by local train. This year, municipal authorities and non-governmental organizations have been campaigning for the use of idols made of eco-friendly materials. This family seems to have missed the bus. Maybe next year.
Devotees prepare to immerse an enormous Ganesh idol in the Arabian Sea on the final day of Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Mumbai. They are joined by millions of others across the state and the rest of the country. In an important step towards sustainable celebration, some families and organizations have taken steps to symbolically immerse a reusable metal idol in a pot of water at home. The same idol will be reused the following year.
Devotees immerse a Ganesh idol in the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad. Though the demand for idols made of clay and natural materials have been high this year, supply has not caught up as making idols from clay takes longer. Further, clay idols cost more.
A Ganesh idol joins thousands of others being immersed in the river. A study conducted in the Ganga River in the aftermath of the similar immersion of Durga idols during the Pujo festival estimated that the total amount of paint submerged in the river was approximately 15 tons. They caused the levels of heavy metals such as mercury, chromium and copper and zinc sulphites to increase by as much as 20 times the normal between October and January. Only during the monsoon, when water levels rise in Indian rivers, does the level of pollutants diminish.
A man searches for reusable items amid immersed idols of the elephant-headed Hindu God Ganesh in the Sabarmati River. Action groups in Mumbai insist that there is a silver lining amid all of this: In 2009, 8,383 household idols were immersed in artificial ponds. In 2010, they maintain, the number grew to 13,866.
Schoolchildren paint idols of Ganesh made with earthen soil with natural colors in Hyderabad. In Nagpur, eco-friendly Ganesh idols made of natural materials and colored with natural dyes are available at Kheteshwar Mandir, Gandhi Bagh and at Chitnavis Centre. The Goan Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, seen by many as a saffron right-wing group, has gone green by banning the use of Plaster of Paris idols and props in celebrations this year. Their contention finds basis in the Hindu practice of using sattvic (pure) materials for worship. In Ponda, also in Goa, eco-friendly idols have been made using waste paper from used jap pustaka (prayer books). They are painted with edible palm oil which dissolves easily in water. We hope you are inspired. Happy Ganesh Chaturthi!