Excerpted from a 1996 article in India Mail by MAYANK BHATT and VIKRAM DOCTOR

Ganesha Visarjana is an increasingly popular worldwide festival, annually celebrated in Europe, England, America, Australia and elsewhere Hindus have settled. It’s become the “Hindu Unity” event, as members of all denominations take part. But, of course, the grandest and greatest celebrations of all take place in Mumbai, where in 1910 Indian freedom fighter Lokmany Tilak turned the August-September festival into a grand event to mobilize and unify Hindus. For the people of Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, it is the time of year when God descends from the sky to settle in the city for ten days, completely transforming it. Charged with excitement, the metropolis takes on an altogether different hue. Nearly all of the city’s estimated 12 million people, either willingly or otherwise, participate in the festivities, all with enormous economic impact upon the metropolis, akin to the Christmas buying season in the West.

People from different parts of the country, but especially from Gujarat, come in large numbers to Mumbai during the festival. There are lectures, debates, fashion shows, films, plays and competitions of several kinds staged across the city.

The festival’s scope is vast. Nearly 200 tons of mava, condensed buffalo milk, comes in just for this festival’s sweets. Fruits and flowers worth over us$71,000 flood in from north Maharashtra. Over 10 million people across Maharashtra participate directly or indirectly. There are 35,000 Ganesha mandals, local organizations, formed just to celebrate this Ganesha holiday. Mumbai, the center of the celebrations, has 9,000 mandals. Each establishes a temporary temple, pandal, in its area of the city. These outdoor platforms sit on the sidewalk or extend into the streets, greatly congesting Mumbai’s already congested traffic flow. Their statues of Lord Ganesha range up to 22 feet high, each destined for immersion in the sea at the festival’s end.

The mandals collect an estimated us$35.7 million in ten days. That doesn’t include the expenditure by families in private celebrations. “More than 100,000 households celebrate this festival, and their number is growing at five per cent annually,” says Kirit Somaiyya, the BJP’s Mumbai unit chief and the convener of the Rashtriya Utsav Samanvay Samiti. No wonder, then, that the 52 immersion sites in Mumbai, where the idols are immersed into the sea, overflow with people on the last day of the event. According to the traffic department of the Mumbai police, a few years ago at least 700,000 people congregated at Chowpatty on the south Mumbai seafront to witness the immersion of the massive idols in the Arabian Sea.

Individual mandals in Mumbai spend anywhere from us$5,700 to us$286,000. According to compilations made by Arun Chaphekar of the Sarvajanik Samiti, these mandals generate nearly 60 percent of their resources through advertisements. Door-to-door collections and the cash box at the mandal make up the rest. There are persistent complaints that some of the door-to-door collection methods amount to extortion, especially with local businesses.

Idol prices range from as little as us$4 to as high as us$2,100. Pen, a town on the Mumbai-Goa highway is the largest center for Ganesha icons, but supplies mostly the rural villages. In Mumbai, Vijay Khatu of Ganesha Galli, Lalbaug, has a virtual monopoly for large idols. He manufactures yearly nearly 500 idols in the medium-sized range, between nine to 15 feet. He said, “Our work begins about a fortnight after the festival is over and continues throughout the year. This is a hereditary business.” Khatu employs 25 artisans for three months prior to the festival.

He is now working on five idols over 20 feet high. Khatu reportedly earns only on one day in a year (Anant Chaturdashi, the first day of the festival, when the Deities are formally purchased), a day that brings in us$170,000 to us$286,000. There are at least five other large idol manufacturers, but Khatu is clearly the leader [in 1996] with about 40 percent of the market. People claim the idol makers operate on huge profit margins. But Khatu denies this. “We have to incur huge costs on the raw materials. And our expenditure is throughout the year, which means we have to really plan our budget, because the income is only one day.”

There are 550 workshops for small idols, with Madhuskar Arts (Girgaon) being the leader, while the biggest decorator is R.D. Talchekar. The decorators charge between us$1,400 and us$43,000. Some mandals are creative in their decoration, with themes from the current socio-political situation to public awareness campaigns. The Sahyadri Kreeda Mandal at Chembur recreates temple architecture in theirs.

These mandals try to out-do each other in decoration, while others gold-plate their Ganeshas. Several decorators now rent their tools. With decoration costs rising by the day, the mandals find this cheaper. “The bookings for this season are made at least four months in advance. And we don’t normally give our equipment to anyone else except the Ganesha mandals for these ten days,” says Vijay Shetty, a decorator from Vikhroli.

Festival supporters feel the government is not doing enough, relative to the festival’s economic benefits. For instance, Chaphekar contends that much of the city’s economy is directly linked to the festival. According to him the festival employs at least 10,000 people throughout the year. “Moreover, ten to 15 percent of the funds that mandals collect are permanently deposited into nationalized and cooperative banks.”

Big companies spend abundantly on festival-related advertising, which includes direct advertisements, sponsorship of pandals, and the highly popular Ganapati posters which, distributed through their dealers, are preserved by families in their puja rooms. “The months up to Ganesha Chaturthi are the lean season, and the festival is the ideal way to kick off sales,” explains G. Seshadri, general manager, consumer electronics (Western Region), Philips. “Maharashtrians feel the Ganesha festival is an auspicious time to buy durables, and our sales go up by 25 to 30 percent.”

Realizing the festival’s tremendous potential as a tourist attraction, the government tourism department and the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation have jointly undertaken a promotion program, according to Ram Chopra, deputy director general of the tourism department. They hope to attract international tourists for the festival, especially since Mumbai is a main entry point into India.

The success of this tourism festival may give an altogether new dimension to Mumbai Ganapati celebrations. But it may bring a larger dose of commercialization. Already purists complain that the Ganapati festival has turned into a commercial holiday.

Excerpted from a 1996 article in India Mail by Mayank Bhatt and Vikram Doctor