When I asked one of my colleagues why students at my school wore a different white uniform on Wednesdays, he shrugged. “Is it just tradition?” I prompted him further. He gave me the head bobble so typical of Indians, along with an enigmatic half-smile, and concluded, “I don’t know. But we really love our traditions here.” The morning assembly on Wednesday resembles nothing less than a naval boot camp graduation, circa 1943, replete with white dress uniforms for boys, and what look suspiciously like nurses’ uniforms for girls. The only difference is that some gray uniforms dot the class lines, evidence of participation of both boys and girls in scouting. Wednesday assembly is also the day for Mass Physical Training. In their class lines, students engage in 30 minutes of stretching, yoga, and calisthenics, while the few teachers committed, concerned, or sadistic enough watch from the shelter of several shade trees around the yard.
In the course of the exercise session, several students will leave the ranks before passing out. One or two won’t make it. Classmates will carry them into the shade to recover, then return to their places. It’s hot, and it has been since May, but the monsoon has not produced the kind of rains this agricultural region is used to, or needs. In some reports in the newspapers, farmers are selling their wives to cover the financial losses. More than 140 farmers in the state have committed suicide in the past 7 weeks, while rainfall was less than half the annual norm.
Despite the growing crisis, or maybe in answer to it, during the first week or so after we arrived, neighborhoods and communities around the region geared up for Ganesha Chaturthi, the Hindu holiday where the elephant-headed god bestows his presence and goodwill on humanity. Wikipedia explains the background of the myth thusly:
“According to the legend, Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of resolution, was away at a war. His wife Parvati, wanted to bathe and having no-one to guard the door to her house, conceived of the idea of creating a son who could guard her. Parvati created Ganesha out of the sandalwood paste that she used for her bath and breathed life into the figure. She then set him to stand guard at her door and instructed him not to let anyone enter.
“In the meantime, Lord Shiva returned from the battle but as Ganesha did not know him, stopped Shiva from entering Parvati's chamber. Shiva, enraged by Ganesh’s impudence, drew his trident and cut off Ganesha's head. Parvati emerged to find Ganesha decapitated and flew into a rage. She took on the form of the Goddess Kali and threatened destruction to the three worlds of Heaven, Earth and the subterranean earth.
“Parvati was still in a dangerous mood. Seeing her in this mood, the other Gods were afraid and Shiva, in an attempt to pacify Parvati, sent out his ganas, or hordes, to find a child whose mother is facing another direction in negligence, cut off his head and bring it quickly. The first living thing they came across was an elephant. That elephant was facing north (the auspicious direction associated with wisdom). So they brought the head of this elephant and Shiva placed it on the trunk of Parvati's son and breathed life into him. Parvati was overjoyed and embraced her son, the elephant-headed boy whom Shiva named Ganesha, the lord of his ganas. Parvati was still upset so Lord Shiva announced that everyone who worships Ganesha before any other form of God is favoured. So Ganesh is worshipped first in all Hindu occasions and festivals.”
From what I was told, the tradition of immersing painted plaster and mud idols of the god at the end of the 10-day festival was only popularized in the 19th century, both to unite different castes in Indian society, and also as a nationalistic rallying point against British rule. So the smallest statues of Ganesh (a couple of inches) to the largest (in Hyderabad, about 50 feet) are displayed by local clubs, organizations, or just interested neighbors under temporary tents and scaffolding in local streets, squares or lots. They are decorated with flowers, jewels, glittery stuff and bright paints, and communities gather nightly for chanting, dancing, making offerings of fruits and vegetables, and general celebrating. There are a whole bunch of other community events scheduled around these celebrations, including art exhibits, music performances, games and competitions, social service projects, and of course, lots of eating. We received many invitations to join in the celebrations, but to be honest, the kids were still a little arrival-shy, and just weren’t prepared for the crowds. We even had to abandon our effort to see the Hyderabad colossus due to the impenetrable mob of celebrants we encountered on the streets around it. But we wandered over to our neighborhood shrine a couple of times, met some new friends and neighbors, and were generally swept up in the joy and goodwill of the occasion.
At the end of the festival, amidst loud drumming and chanting crowds (something along the lines of “come again, next year), each idol is taken by truck or 3-wheeled auto to the nearest lake, or other large body of water, and ceremoniously dumped in. After the idol dissolves, the frames are recovered for reuse next year. The Ganesh in our apartment complex was about 8 feet tall, painted to look like it was made of wood, and was situated in a tent on the worn gravel clearing where the kids normally play cricket; there was another one, tended by students from the neighborhood, in an unfinished storefront across from my school. The big immersion day brought hundreds of thousands of people to downtown Hyderabad, where a large lake is a popular site for immersions. About 30 or 40 heavy construction-grade cranes were set up around the lake to conduct for-hire immersion services. We were told it was best to avoid downtown Hyderabad during immersions, even more so as it happened to coincide with the untimely death of the state’s Chief Minister in a helicopter crash, so Jen and Niko had to be satisfied with seeing off our neighborhood Ganesh in a parade of chanting, drumming, and fireworks as it made its way out of the complex. After its 15 mile drive into the city, it was taken to to an appointed crane for immersion. Each service lasts about the time it takes to secure cables to your neighborhood Ganesh statue’s base, lift it and maybe several others (if they wanted to share the cost and there was room on the platform), and then drop them into Sagr Lake. Yeah, there are some environmental issues connected with dumping 2000 statues of various sizes and materials into an already polluted lake, but let’s not allow that to get in the way of a much-beloved tradition. And within days of the holiday’s opening, almost 10 inches of rain fell in Andhra Pradesh. Thank you, elephant-head-boy-god! Come again next year!