Every year in Mumbai, India, as the monsoon abates, the city resounds with chants praising Ganesh, the Hindu god of wisdom and luck, and the remover of obstacles. But this year, city officials have to find creative ways around a huge obstacle: how to allow faithful to celebrate one of India's biggest festivals safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
The 10-day festival began Aug. 22 and continues through Sept. 1. It usually brings out millions of celebrants, who decorate idols of the elephant-headed deity and immerse them in the Arabian Sea.
"We have created mobile artificial ponds. If you call our helpline number, we will provide a [water tanker] truck on your doorstep," says Kiran Dighavkar, assistant commissioner for Mumbai's municipal authority. "Entire service is free of cost!"
The trucks make house calls. So instead of crowding Mumbai's beaches to immerse their idols, people do it in the back of these trucks. Each night, they're emptied for the next day's rounds.
"Everybody's thermal-screened for temperature, and we are making sure they're wearing masks," Dighavkar says. "It's a very godly atmosphere."
Normally, Mumbai turns into a massive party at this time of year, with millions of revelers handing out modaks — sweet dumplings filled with shredded coconut. Neighborhoods erect temporary stages called pandals, on which they place giant Ganesh statues — some multiple stories high — and hold block parties around them.
This year, idols have to be under 2 feet, to fit into the water tanks. Some of them are coronavirus-themed, with Ganesh wearing a surgical mask. There are even idols that double as hand sanitizer dispensers.
Mumbai — the festival's epicenter — was one of India's early epicenters for COVID-19. India has reported the third most infections in the world, behind the U.S. and Brazil, but it's where the virus is spreading fastest. On Thursday, India confirmed 75,760 new cases — a daily record since the pandemic began.
Mumbai's caseload has plateaued, as infections rise in poor rural areas in northern India. Schools and cinemas remain closed nationwide, and parts of Mumbai remain under strict lockdown.
In the past, thousands of Ganesh idols would wash up on Mumbai's beaches, despite a push to make them biodegradable. Some are decorated with toxic paint, and there have been reports of fish dying. Boisterous processions also push noise pollution to dangerous levels.
But this year, only municipal workers are allowed to approach the sea, and there have been far fewer immersions — and far less detritus. It's been the quietest, greenest Ganesh festival in more than 15 years, says Sumaira Abdulali, an activist with the Awaaz Foundation, a nonprofit environmental group in Mumbai.
"You think the worst thing possible has happened — the pandemic," Abdulali says. "But good things do come out of bad things. It's definitely a silver lining."
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:
Around this time of year, millions of people typically gather on the shores of India's financial capital Mumbai. They're there to celebrate one of India's biggest religious festivals honoring Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god. But this year, the pandemic means big processions are prohibited. And city officials have had to come up with some creative ways to help the faithful celebrate, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Here is what the festival sounded like this time last year on Mumbai's Arabian Sea coast.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
FRAYER: Those chants of praise for Ganesh, or Lord Ganesha, are like a soundtrack to summer's end. It's when the monsoon rains let up and faithful hold a 10-day festival honoring the Hindu god of wisdom and luck, who's depicted with a human body and an elephant head. But in the era of COVID, it all sounds quite different.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking non-English language).
FRAYER: That's a Hindu priest livestreaming prayers this year. Traditionally, huge crowds gather to immerse their idols of the elephant god into the sea or a pond. But this year, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, city officials are bringing artificial ponds to the people instead.
KIRAN DIGHAVKAR: We have created a mobile artificial pond. If you call our helpline number, we will provide a truck at your doorstep.
FRAYER: Assistant Commissioner Kiran Dighavkar has outfitted municipal trucks with giant water tanks. They pull up to your house. You say a prayer...
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
FRAYER: ...And immerse your idol in the back of the truck. Each night, the water tanks get emptied for the next day's rounds.
DIGHAVKAR: Entire service is free. Everybody's thermal-screened for temperature. And we are making sure that they are wearing masks. Obviously, they are washing their hands. It's a very godly atmosphere. Nobody tends to violate the rules.
FRAYER: Normally, it's a massive party with millions of people handing out sweet dumplings. There'd be parade floats with giant statues of Ganesh, some multiple stories high. This year, idols have to be under 2 feet to fit in the water tanks. Some of them are COVID-themed, showing Ganesh in a surgical mask. There are even idols that double as hand sanitizer dispensers. One woman told local TV how she made her Ganesh idol out of chocolate this year...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hindi).
FRAYER: ...So that she can immerse it in milk at home instead of in the sea. In Mumbai, only municipal workers are allowed to approach the sea this year, and there have been far fewer immersions. That's a relief to Indranil Sengupta and Rabia Tewari, the husband-and-wife founders of a Mumbai beach cleanup. In past years, thousands of Ganesh idols would wash up on the beach near their home despite a push to make more of them biodegradable.
INDRANIL SENGUPTA: It's actually a very sad sight to see because you're worshipping this idol, and then you just discard it. And also, they're toxic. They've been made of chemicals. We've literally seen dying fish around the time of the immersions.
RABIA TEWARI: And I was noticing just last night that I barely saw anybody going into the sea for the immersions. This was the aim of environmentalists all these years to, you know, reduce the pollution.
SENGUPTA: I just wish we didn't have to wait for a drastic pandemic like this.
FRAYER: For them, it's been a silver lining for India's environment in an otherwise difficult time during the pandemic.
Lauren Frayer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.