The Ganesh Chaturthi festival is usually marked with much gaiety across India and is a community affair.
Huge idols of the much-loved, elephant-headed Hindu god, Ganesh, are installed in opulently decorated pandals, or tents, that vie with each other for attention as devotees flock to offer prayers and distribute special sweets.
The faithful don new clothes and, over 10 days, visit friends and relatives as well as a number of pandals across their home city. The revelry ends with the idols being immersed in water – the sea, rivers, streams, lakes, ponds or wells.
Things were different this year, though, as the coronavirus pandemic and a stringent lockdown derailed life across India. Public Ganesh Chaturthi festivities, which should have culminated on September 1, were cancelled as people celebrated in their homes.
Many organisers cancelled their shows and the few who did set up pandals complied with strict coronavirus guidelines.
India has a calendar that is studded with religious festivals, and the impact of the pandemic on celebrations was felt as early as March, when a nationwide lockdown was imposed.
Holi (March 9 and 10), the Hindu spring festival of colours, was muted as Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to citizens to refrain from smearing coloured dye on each other – a typical way of celebrating.
Then came Easter, in April, when Christian church pews remained empty. Since churches were closed on Easter Sunday, prayers were led online and seasonal messages shared on social media. Frugal repasts replaced lavish Easter spreads.
Eid ul-Fitr, in May, saw Muslims stay away from mosques, instead praying at home. Normally, markets festooned with lights and tinsel would have been overflowing with people jostling to buy food, sweets and fruit with which to break the day-long fasts. But not this year. Eid ul-Adha, or Bakr-Id, when goats and sheep are sacrificed, was also low-key.
“This is a festival where we visit friends and relatives, hug each other and share food,” says Haider Ali Khan, a Delhi-based businessman. “But all these were missing this year. There was a festival but no festivities. We prayed at home and wished everyone [well] over the phone.”
The Guru Arjan Dev Martyrdom Day (June 16), a major Sikh festival, was also observed in a simple manner, with only a few devotees paying obeisance at Amritsar’s Golden Temple.
Similarly, Krishna Janmashtami (August 11), which celebrates the birth of the Hindu Lord Krishna, passed with no public festivities. No human pyramids formed for followers to try to snatch prizes strung up high between buildings.
The few devotees who did visit their temples had to abide by social distancing norms and regulations.
This year’s religious celebrations may have been muted, but that does not mean they have been non-existent. Zoom and Facebook have allowed religious adherents to mark them as communities.
For Ganesh Chaturthi, people learned to make idols from online resources and their rituals and prayers were shared on YouTube. Sweets were made in home kitchens.
“Though coronavirus was taking over the entire city, we couldn’t miss this Ganesh festival,” says Gaurav Naik, an IT professional based in Mumbai. “Therefore, I learned everything watching videos online and it was a great experience.”
Also finding a silver lining in the lockdown have been those concerned about the environment. The immersion of Ganesh idols is typically a crowded, noisy affair that releases tonnes of toxic chemicals and non-degradable decorations into India’s water sources. This year, people immersed their idols in tubs and buckets at home instead.
Less happy are the vendors of flowers, decorative items and imitation jewellery, transport operators, idol makers and pandal decorators, who have all taken a major financial hit.
“Sales have gone down drastically, as making idols is our family business and we have been doing this for generations,” says Dilip Guha, a manufacturer in Delhi. “For the first time, we are facing such a dip in orders.”
Sweet sellers, who are used to seeing business soar during the festive season, took a huge loss during last month’s Hindu Raksha Bandhan festival – which celebrates the brother-sister bond – than they did for last year’s event, according to the Federation of Indian Sweets and Namkeens Manufacturers.
As Dussehra (a Hindu festival that is celebrated on October 25) and Diwali (a Hindu celebration of the victory of light over darkness on November 14) fast approach – to be followed by Christmas, New Year, Sankranti (dedicated to the Hindu deity Surya on January 14) and Holi again – it’s impossible to predict when business will return.
Idol makers in Delhi, for instance, who would usually be preparing for Durga Puja (a four-day festival paying homage to the Hindu goddess Durga that begins on October 22), are sitting idle, having received few orders.
“As people are learning everything online and they are not celebrating on a large scale, our business is in danger,” says Suhash Paul, whose family has been making idols for three generations.
Some festival committees, though, have swung into action. “We have decided to go online with the puja this year,” says Anindya Chatterjee, president of Yubak Sangha Club in Salt Lake, Kolkata.
The club’s ceremonies and rituals will be live-streamed on Facebook and other social media platforms. Specialised apps are being developed and devotees will be able to make cash offerings online.
Diwali, which celebrates the start of the Hindu new year and which is usually marked by the detonation of fireworks, is expected to be very quiet this year. There may be little or no exchanging of gifts and sweets, although homes may be lit up. Christmas may well be like Easter, a quiet affair.
Quiet…but not lacking in joy; Covid may have dampened social celebrations, but Indians will continue to mark their religious festivals as best they can.
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This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.