Story and Photography by Rhett Kleine
Groups of young men chant Vedic hymns around the small pond alongside Sankey Lake in Bangalore, Karnataka. Statues of the Hindu god Ganesh are the centre of these religious devotions, one stands at the height of a man.
A priest, draped in crimson robes trimmed with gold thread, blesses the idol as commotion engulfs him.
A lamp is passed around the group, the flame writhes from side to side with the movement.
Families gather around smaller idols, their prayer uninterrupted by the maelstrom of activity fillling the standing space around the pond which is tucked away from the main thoroughfare. When the prayers and blessing sings are done, the idols are carried to the water and dipped three or four times before being left to sink below the surface. Cheers and celebration thunder through the crowd pressed against the gate that leads down to the water.
From September 2 to 12, Indians of the Hindu faith celebrate the Ganesh Visaragen – a spiritual gathering with a decidedly political history.
During the British Raj, large social or political gatherings weren’t allowed due to the fear they may be used to plan and coordinate uprisings. But religious gatherings were still permitted, so Indian nationalist and independence activist Lokmanya Tilak instigated the first public Ganesh Visaragen so independence leaders could meet with ease under the guise of religious devotion. Before this it was celebration families held in the home, and the continuation of this ceremony today is now both a religious and patriotic act.
The Ganesh Visaragen represents Ganesh’s descent to earth for ten days, after which he returns to Mount Kailash; the mythical home of the Hindu gods. Hindu devotees place Ganesh idols in their homes or places of work, with sizes varying from that of a small dog to twenty-foot-high colossuses. At the end of the celebration the idols are brought to a lake or body of water where they are submerged. The belief being that as he is immersed, he returns to Mount Kailash.
The problem with the Ganesh Visaragen from an ecological standpoint however, is that many statues have been and are still made of plaster of Paris. PoP contains calcium sulphate hemihydrate, a substance that often takes years to break down. When it finally does, it reduces oxygen levels in the water making it uninhabitable for water-life.
Authorities in Karnataka have put a ban on the use of plaster of Paris idols in an attempt to curb the devastation PoP has on water bodies. Goa and Madras followed suit.
Chairman of the KSPCB (Karnataka State Pollution Control Board) Dr K Sudhakar said the ban was necessary.
“As they have been proven to be toxic to both nature and human beings, we in the board have decided to curb the sale and use of PoP idols in the State,” he said.
But as the KSPCB and their counterparts across India are discovering, banning PoP idols has not been so easy. The ban has since been revoked in Madras, and in Karnataka where there was fervent uproar the use of PoP idols is now on the rise despite the KSPCB’s ruling.
So other strategies are being deployed, such as the building of separate Kalyani (pond) immersion pools next to the lake to allow for immersions to continue without pollutants from PoP idols having an effect on natural waterways. Portable tanks have also become available, although there is an increasing call for more to cater for the city’s majority Hindu population.
Harish Karupakla, a local politician with a strong jaw and receding hairline, has developed a start-up to sell clay Ganesh idols which are environmentally friendly. He is spearheading a movement calling for a return to traditional clay idols, which dissolve quickly and without ecological repercussions. Clay holds significance to Ganesh as he was made from clay by his mother Parvati to keep watch while she bathed.
If Ganesh was formed from clay and it’s better for the environment, why were the bans challenged and ultimately ignored? For one the Ganesh idols made from clay cost more and it is difficult to build large Ganesh statues. Most of the environmentally friendly clay idols can be only around five feet high.
the lure of big ganesh
Shiva Kumar stands at the doorway of his dimly lit warehouse. Row upon row of Ganesh idols line the walls as the light pierces the thick plastic veils covering the Hindu god. Idol sellers like Kumar are finding it hard to market the smaller, less decorative and more expensive clay idols.
The demand for colossal Ganesh idols is huge. And the intricate design of these giant statues is matched only by the luxuriousness of the paint job. These giants cost millions of rupees to buy and spew all manner of toxins and chemicals into the water they’re immersed in. Yet the demand for them, even after a state-wide ban on PoP in 2016 is as strong as ever and Shiva has no shortage of communities pooling their money to buy statues 20 feet or taller to immerse in their local pool. In 2017, the year after the ban was announced, one in four of the four million statues immersed in Bengaluru were plaster of Paris.
Religious grandeur and ecological conservation are proving a tricky duet to choreograph.
The demand for sumptuous idols purportedly conveys the status and religious devotion of those who display them, the reasoning behind it almost mirrors that of a schoolyard argument around who has the flashier shoes.
But Pundit Rama Shastri, a religious scholar who serves at the Ganesh Temple in Malleswaram is against the use of PoP idols.
“According to a pujari conducting ritual worship at a Hindu temple, they suggest people to use clay idols to worship during Ganesha festival. By using clay idols, immersion in the water is easy and its eco-friendly,” he says.
In the end, the need for large, extravagant Ganesh statues is more to do with ego and and short-sighted greed. Even the argument that clay idols are too expensive is contradicted by the tens of thousands of rupees families and communities are prepared to fork out every year by to buy excessively grand PoP idols.
AN IDOL pierces the surface of the water that remained in Sankey Tank immersion pool as it was drained.
There are verses in the Vedic texts which speak reverently of the environment in the same way they do of Hindu gods and goddesses. In this context the continued demand for PoP idols lays bare superficial devotion that ultimately strays away from Moksha – the ultimate spiritual goal of a Hindu’s life.
Rhett is a third year Documentary Photography student. He has documented stories across India for the Water Story project. These stories have ranged from the effect that contemporary Hindu festivals have had on Bangalore’s waterways in the south, to the Koli, further north, who are stone-age fishermen indigenous to the Maharashtra coast. Then to the Changpa Nomad’s in India’s northern peaks. Recently he has covered how lockdown exacerbated Australia’s already high rates of domestic violence. His work ultimately aims to strike a deeper chord with audiences in how we understand the human condition and how we relate to the environment around us. See Instagram @rhettdoesphoto