It’s a scene you will find in many Goan villages this week: a wooden canopy covered with a variety of fruit, vegetables, leaves, shoots, herbs and tubers hanging over a Ganesh idol. The canopy, or matoli, is an integral part of Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations in the western state.

In recent times, there’s been a noticeable push across India to celebrate festivals, including Ganesh Chaturthi, in an environment-friendly manner. In July, programmes were conducted in various districts in Karnataka to raise awareness about how conventional plaster of Paris idols harm the ponds and lakes in which they are immersed. In cities as far apart as Mumbai and Bhopal, there has been a surge in demand for eco-friendly Ganeshas. In Thane, near Mumbai, a mall has even installed a 10-foot-tall art installation of a Ganesh made with circuit boards to advance the cause of e-waste education.

While attempts to go green during the festive season are a recent trend in urban India, it’s a different story in rural Goa. Here, Ganesh Chaturthi has always been a festival that celebrates nature in its truest form. Every element of the festivities is directly related to nature, from the fact that the idol is made from mud from the local river to the way in which Ganesha’s parents are worshipped – a coconut is used to symbolise Mahadev while a bundle of wild leaves and flowers represent Gauri. The most important element, though, is the matoli. In fact, it is only after the matoli has been placed that the idol for worship is even installed.

Pudi or a bundle of medicinal herbs wrapped in kasal leaves.

“Matoli is an excellent exhibition of the seasonal biodiversity, which transmits the traditional knowledge of local flora from one generation to another, and also to develop love and respect for the biodiversity,” said environmentalist Rajendra Kerkar, who has documented this tradition for many years now.

The fruits and vegetables that are used to decorate the matoli can be broadly divided into three categories – edible, medicinal and poisonous. Before the advent of modern medicine, villagers would rely on natural substances to rid themselves of their ailments, which made it essential for them to have knowledge of wild flora. The matoli, in all its diversity, is a perfect representation of this ethnobotany.

Many varieties

A few days before Ganesh Chaturthi, known locally as Chavath, the villagers – both young and old – venture into the forest to collect various wild flowers, fruit and leaves such as kangla, matti (Terminalia elliptica), fagla (Momordica dioica), kevan and triphala. Many of these plants have a strong socio-cultural significance – for instance, the matti or crocodile bark tree is one of the state trees of Goa.

Fruits at the Banastarim market. Photo credit: Ashish Prabhugaonkar.

The vegetables and fruits used for the festivities differ from place to place – villages near the Western Ghats use forest species while the coastal villages have more of those connected to the palm. A variety of gourds, pumpkins, bananas and seasonal vegetables are used. “There are some items which are a must, like coconuts and areca nuts,” said writer and folklore researcher Jayanti Naik.

There’s no limit to the number of items that can be displayed on the matoli. In the villages of Canacona, Quepem and Sanguem in South Goa, and Sattari in North Goa, some families decorate the matoli with more than 400 items.

“We have at least 350-400 items for the matoli, and we start collecting these items around 15 days before the festival,” said Rupesh Painginkar, who lives in the village of Poinguinim. “There are some wild plants, which were once used as medicine for cattle but now are a part of the matoli.” Painginkar also takes part in an annual matoli competition organised by the Directorate of Art and Culture.

Lord Mahadev and goddess Gauri.

Another important tradition during the festival is worshipping the first harvest of the season. On the second day of Chaturthi, the first paddy harvest, called nave, is offered to Lord Ganesh. In the past, wild elephants and rats would wreak havoc in the rice fields. In a bid to ward them off, the farmers would seek Ganesh’s protection.

The wild leaves that are used to decorate the idol are locally known as patri. Most of them are readily available in the markets held a day before the festival. The most famous is the Banastarim market, around 20 km away from Panaji. But some families, like the Prabhugaonkars of Mashem in Canacona, prefer to gather these themselves and tie them in a bundle locally known as, pudi, for their homes and for others in the village.

“We use plenty of medicinal herbs [for the pudi],” said Ashish Prabhugaonkar. Some of the herbs are tulsi, bel, Visnukant (Indigofera dalzellii), kamal, kevda and bringara. The pudi is wrapped in kasal leaves. “We require at least 21 different varieties of leaves, and knowledge about these leaves is a must for identification,” said Prabhugaonkar.

A typical Matoli in a Goan home in Canacona. Photo credit: Arti Das.

However, the Painginkars and Prabhugaonkars are an exception in Goa these days. “Now people have moved to cities. And since there are hardly any forests left, such practices are rare,” said Naik.

Nandkumar Kamat, assistant professor of botany at Goa University, has reservations about the matoli practice. He says the commercial aspect of this tradition is now taking a heavy toll on uncultivable wild plant species. “Matoli should be restricted to only cultivated plants,” said Kamat. According to him, creating seed banks of wild plants, establishing plant nurseries and involving youngsters in the systematic documentation of wild flora used in matoli, could be the way forward.