Happy Ganesh Chaturthi!
Ganesha, avert this environmental catastrophe!
Isnâ€™tit 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
devoteeâ€™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.
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!