In Maharashtra and especially in the city of Pune, the Ganesh festival, held in the honour of one of the most popular deities of India, is celebrated with grandeur, pomp and showat an individual level, as well as at the community level. It begins with the installation of an idol of Lord Ganesh. In the days that follow, the idol is worshipped daily. On the tenth day, a procession of the idol is taken to the nearest water body, amidst great chanting and dancing, and comes to an end with the immersion of the idol.
According to the historian V.K. Rajwade, the earliest Ganesh Festival celebrations can be traced back to BCE. Historical records reveal that Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations were initiated by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaja, the great Maratha ruler, to promote Maharashtrian culture and nationalism. And it has continued ever since. There are lots of references in History of similar celebrations during the Peshwa regime. In 1893, Indian freedom fighter and social reformist, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, transformed this annual domestic festival in Maharashtra into a large public event. Tilak recognized the wide appeal of the deity as the ‘God For Everybody’ and popularized the Festival in order to bridge the gap between the various castes and religions and find a context to unify them. He used this festival as a tool to generate a nationalistic fervour among people in Maharashtra against the British colonial rule.
In 1897, the number of Ganesh Mandals in Pune increased many fold and the question of whose Ganapati will be the first in cavalcade was hotly debated. At this crucial time, Tilak and his colleague, Annasaheb Patwardhan, took the lead in resolving the issue amicably and gave first preference to Kasba Ganapati, which was established by Jijabai, mother of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. In all, five Ganesh Mandals were given the special honour of leading the immersion procession. The same tradition is followed till today.
Today, when the first decade of the twenty first century is just over and we are riding on the incredible waves of technological advances, the festival still holds the same enthusiasm as during the pre-independence period. Though the spirit behind it has changed, it still provides the opportunity for various social and family gatherings. On the community level, many groups lay emphasis on organizing social activities like blood donation camps, free medical checkups, and offering scholarships to needy and bright students. Even decorations in Ganapati pandals have undergone a drastic transformation. Many Mandals now feel the need to create awareness about environmental degradation, female foeticide, rising inflation, corruption and so on.
Times are changing and so are the traditions and beliefs. But even today this festival links everybody with tradition, gives a chance to mingle with other members of the society and removes all the boundaries to bring the masses closer, at least for a while. That feeling keeps the Ganesh festival alive and thriving, going beyond rituals. And the spirit lives on…