The festival begins with the installation of huge statutes of Ganesha in homes and podiums, which have been especially constructed and beautifully decorated. Artisans put months of effort into making the statues. On Ananta Chaturdasi (the last day), the statues are paraded through the streets, accompanied by much singing and dancing, and then immersed in the ocean or other bodies of water. In Mumbai alone, more than 150,000 statues are immersed each year!
Hindus worship idols, or statues, of their gods because it gives them a visible form to pray to. They also recognize that the universe is in a constant state of change. Form eventually gives away to formlessness. However, the energy still remains. The immersion of the statues in the ocean, or other bodies of water, and subsequent destruction of them serves as a reminder of this belief. Hindus believe that inviting Ganesh into their homes and then immersing him leads to obstacles being removed and good fortune being brought into the home for the coming year. The first immersion I went to this year was on the 5th day. I walked up through the village behind our apartment with Jenni, one of the new teachers, and we went to a lake where the statues were being immersed. There were family groups standing around their statues, praying, singing, clapping their hands and banging small cymbals. One family invited me to join in which was great.
The 11th day is the final immersion day. We were given a half day off school so that we could either go and join in, or get home and stay out of the way of the festivities. I chose to go and join in. Jenni and I went to the Marriott on Juhu beach.
We were able to walk up and down the beach to observe what was happening. Right outside the Marriott there were many small family Ganesh statues being immersed, but further up the beach there were some big ones arriving.
As the sun started to go down, so did the crowds grow on the beach. For me one of the most poignant images was the remains of the Ganesh statues from the previous immersions. Bits of Ganesh, maybe arms or heads, were washed back by the tide and left stranded on the beach. The idea is that the statues are immersed (visarjan) and left to disintegrate.
The large Ganesh statues take a long time to reach the ocean and be immersed. The slow moving processions commonly start out mid morning and go throughout the night, with the statue only being placed in the water early the next morning.