Every August, Ganesh festival organisers across Mumbai spend weeks erecting elaborate public pandals in preparation for the city’s biggest religious celebration. This year, with Ganesh Chaturthi approaching on August 22, many organisers are busy constructing large brick tanks instead.

The water tanks, meant for immersing Ganesh idols at the end of the 10-day festival, are a part of city-wide efforts to scale down Ganesh celebrations in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a set of directives issued last month, the Maharashtra government urged people to immerse their Ganesh idols at home or in artificial ponds or tanks, particularly if they install clay idols. While there is no ban on immersing idols at beaches and other public water bodies, the directive aims to prevent crowding and the risk of the virus spreading.

Even though Mumbai is now reporting more coronavirus recoveries than active cases, the city remains India’s biggest Covid-19 hotspot.

“Mumbai has around 2,700 public Ganesh pandals every year and hundreds of idols are brought to people’s homes, but we have just 84 places for visarjan [immersion],” said Naresh Dahibawkar, the president of the Brihanmumbai Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Samanvay Samiti, an umbrella body representing over 2,500 public Ganesh festival organisers in the city.

The 84 immersion points include beaches, local ponds, lakes, creeks and a few artificial tanks that eco-conscious devotees have been turning to in the past few years. Most of the tall idols installed in public pandals are immersed at the city’s beaches, with Girgaon Chowpatty attracting as many as two lakh people on the final day of immersion every year.

“Since that will not be possible during Covid, the municipal corporation has sanctioned the construction of 250 to 300 artificial water tanks this year,” said Dahibawkar. Most of the tanks will be built at the level of individual neighbourhoods. “I have appealed to many civic corporators to get tanks built in their own areas, but in many places, individual pandals themselves have offered to make their own tanks.”

The state government’s directives also firmly restrict the height of all Ganesh idols this year: public idols can be no more than four feet tall, and idols at home must cannot be higher than two feet. Public pandals have been asked to provide for online “darshan” of their idols, and avoid soliciting donations from devotees unless it is voluntary.

The rules have dampened the spirits of festival organisers and devotees, many of whom spend the ten days of the festival idol-hopping across the city to see popular idols and the decorative, themed pandals built around them.

“There is very little enthusiasm among our karyakartas [activists] this year, because of the restrictions,” said Swapnil Parab, the secretary of the Ganesh Galli Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Mandal, a popular organiser in Mumbai’s Lalbaug area. “We will follow all the rules this year, but next year we will double the scale of our celebrations.”

A file photo showing devotees carry a Ganesh idol for immersion at the Dadar Chowpatty beach on the sixth day of the eleven-day long festival Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai on September 10, 2016. Photo: AFP

‘Little bit of band-baaja’

Ganesh Galli is one of the many pandals constructing its own artificial tank to immerse its idol. Every year, the pandal itself occupies a large portion of a public ground in the area, but this year, the pandal is smaller and the ground will instead house a large tank that will be demolished after the festival. “We are inviting everyone in this neighbourhood to immerse their home idols in our tank too,” said Parab.

Not far from Ganesh Galli is Tejukaya Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Trust, which erected a 22-feet Ganesh idol at its popular pandal last year.

“When the idol is that big, larger crowds come to see it, so the government’s decision to restrict the height to four feet is actually good,” said Ashish Rampure, the vice president of the Tejukaya Trust.

Like Ganesh Galli, the Trust has also chalked out plans to build its own artificial tank for immersing its paper maiche idol.

“We are also appealing to all housing societies to build their own tanks in their compounds,” said Dahibawkar. Families or pandals that cannot access or make arrangements for tanks will have to immerse their idols at beaches and lakes. “But as per the rules, only five or ten people can participate in the visarjan procession.”

While this itself is likely to flout physical distancing norms and cause crowding, Dahibawkar claims that drumming and musical bands that form a crucial part of Ganesh processions have not been banned this year. “As long as there is no long procession, a little bit of band-baaja is ok,” he said.

Online darshan

While the Ganesh Galli and Tejukaya pandals are popular among devotees, Mumbai’s most famous idol will not be installed at all this year. The Lalbaugcha Raja idol attracts devotees from across the country every year, with lakhs of people standing in queues for over 24 hours to get a glimpse. This will be the first time in 86 years that Mumbai will not host Lalbaugcha Raja.

Further east, GSB Wadala is one of the many other public pandals that have opted out of Ganesh celebrations this year. Among the ones that will install idols, many claim they will livestream prayers on their social media all day, to prevent crowds from gathering at the pandals.

“This is the best we can do, but if people show up at the pandal, we cannot turn them away,” said Parab from Ganesh Galli. “But we will be sanitising our pandal three times a day and will check everybody’s temperature and oxygen levels.”

This, however, is not a guarantee of safety. Most coronavirus-positive cases are asymptomatic, and many carriers of the virus could slip through such a screening process.

An artisan wearing a facemask paints a clay idol of Ganesh at a workshop in Mumbai on June 26, 2020. Photo: AFP

Economic woes

Mumbai’s elaborate Ganesh pandals are typically funded by political parties, consumer brands and donations from devotees. This year, even if the state government’s rules had not asked pandals to avoid collection of donations, festival organisers claim they would have had thin collections anyway.

“Ours is a middle-class neighbourhood with many daily wage workers who have lost their jobs or salaried workers whose payments have been cut,” said Rampure. “People’s finances are strained, particularly the murtikars whose seasonal work has been affected so much.”

The murtikars in question are idol-makers whose annual incomes are heavily dependent on the revenue they generate during the Ganesh, Navratri and Durga Puja seasons. This year, everything from raw materials to craftsmen has been a problem.

“The clay that we use for our idols is usually bought from Bhavnagar in Gujarat months before Ganesh utsav,” said Manohar Bagwe, 65, an idol-maker from central Mumbai. “But this year, there was no transport at the start of the lockdown so getting hold of the clay itself was delayed.”

Bagwe claims idol-makers like him have also been struggling to get space to set up their temporary workshops. “Normally the city authorities give us space in a maidan or ground to set up our workshop, but this year they still haven’t allowed us such space,” said Bagwe, who is currently renting studio space in a small private godown in Chinchpowkli.

Bagwe usually makes 150 to 200 idols every year for people’s homes, and his clientele includes families from across the greater Mumbai region. This year, with most families opting to buy idols from their nearest vendors, Bagwe has barely received 100 orders.

While business has shrunk, his workforce has shrunk even further. “I normally have 25 or 30 craftsmen to deal with the workload, but during the lockdown most of them returned to their villages,” said Bagwe. “Now we are just eight of us making so many idols.”