Ganesh Chaturthi, the 10-day-long carnival is celebrated to commemorate the birthday of Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, the younger son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. To mark the festival, the devotees bring idols of Lord Ganesha to their homes or public pandals. The idol is kept there for days, ranging from one-and-a-half to 10 days. During this period, a whole lot of cultural events take place, from plays and poetry recitals to music and dance performances. On the 10th day, the idol is carried to the nearby pond and is immersed in it. This practice is known as ‘visarjan’.
The festival was initiated by the founder of the Maratha Empire, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, somewhere in the 17th century to promote culture and nationalism. Community worship used to take place in the Maratha capital of Pune. The tradition was taken forward by the Peshwas, who were earlier the Prime Ministers to the Chhatrapati but later became the de-facto rulers.
The practice continued till 1818. In 1818, the last Peshwa Baji Rao II was defeated by the English East India Company in the Third Battle of Panipat. The Peshwai ended, along with that, the grand celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi was also discontinued.
With the nationalist sentiments arising in the 19th century, one nationalist freedom fighter saw potential in this very festival as the unifier for Hindus, against the colonial government. He was none other than Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He transformed the household festival into a grand carnival, full of colours, energy, music, dance and food. Thus ‘Ganeshotsav‘ was transformed into ‘Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav‘ (festival for all). It was him, who came up with the practice of visarjan where God’s idol is immersed in a nearby water body.
The first pandal for the community worship of Lord Ganesha was set up at Shantarmachi Chawl, located in South Mumbai’s Girgaon. This took place in the year 1893, in which Lokmanya Tilak himself put up images of Ganesha on the streets. The 10-day-long carnival saw all sorts of festivities and cultural programs, followed by visarjan on the last day. The festival was discontinued for 7 years, where Lokmanya Tilak held all the meetings and made all the preparations for the grand fair; but the festival started to be celebrated in a collective way, in other places, from 1894 onwards.
Lokmanya Tilak and his fellow freedom fighters used the festival as a tool to unify the Hindus. They popularised the festival to bridge the gap between Brahmins and non-Brahmins, and Lord Ganesha was used as the unifier, as he is considered the ‘God of Everybody’. The festivities and community worship served as the meeting point for people of different castes, classes and communities, leading to inter-mingling and some degree of unification in the highly divided Hindu community.
The occasion was used to instil a feeling of nationalism among the masses, through political speeches, plays, poetries etc. This played a huge role in making the masses, a part of the Indian National Movement. The mass gatherings were a huge achievement since, at that time, the British government discouraged public gatherings.
The festival had a flip side as well. Though on one hand, it unified the Hindu masses and made them a part of the national movement, on the other hand, the non-Hindus, in which Muslims constituted the majority were left behind. Also, giving communal colour to the national movement proved to be a wrong precedent as the non-Hindus may have felt like outcasts in the national movement.
It has been 125 years, the practice that started in 1893, hasn’t been discontinued. People bring Ganesha’s idols, place them in their homes and pandals. Celebrations and festivities follow for days. On the last day, the visarjan takes place in which the procession immerses the idol in the nearest pond, thereby ending the 10-day-long fair!