• Omer Haq

Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav

Updated: Jan 13

Historical files reveal that Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations were initiated in Maharashtra by Chatrapati Shivaji, to promote a culture of nationalism; Peshwas also celebrated the festival because they worshipped Lord Ganapati as their family deity or Kuldewta

With the resurgence of a more integrative national spirit on top on his agenda, Bal Gangadhar Tilak had converted Ganesh Chaturthi, a traditional family festival for worshipping the deity of knowledge, into a social festival. He established the practice of its collective celebrations, and with the same approach, he also established Shivaji Maharaj’s birth anniversary every year as a public festival.

Years later, Mahatma Gandhi realized that although a sufficiently awakened national spirit was giving impetus to the freedom struggle, to join civil disobedience and court arrest every now and then was not easy for the commoners. This prompted him to invent some set of actions in the form of activities pertaining to everyday personal conduct. Spinning yarn on an easy-to-operate charkha or wearing clothes made of khadi, thus, eventually became acts of patriotism, and thereby, symbols of joining the freedom struggle. Veer Savarkar, too, appealed to countrymen to stop using clothes made abroad and campaigned for swadeshi, or country-manufactured clothes. Almost during the same period, KB Hedgewar, evolved the practice of joining RSS shakhas for, largely speaking, evening games. Thereby, he cultivated the new apparatus called “shakha”. Over the years, the shakha became an instrument for generating social consciousness, assimilation and national spirit.

It is not known exactly when and how Ganesh Chaturthi was first celebrated. But according to the historian Shri Rajwade, the earliest Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations can be traced back to the times of the reigns of dynasties as Satavahana, Rashtrakuta and Chalukya.

One of the earliest Ganesh Utsav Mandals started by Tilak

To begin with, the presence of Ganesh is not only in every corner of India but also in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Tibet, among other places. In Maharashtra, Ganesh puja has a special significance. Lokmanya Tilak started the community puja or the Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav in Pune but, in Maharashtra, for around 500 years, people had been making small idols of Ganesh to worship in their homes during the month of “Bhadrapat”. The oldest is the Kasba Peth Ganpati mandir, which was established by Jijamata, mother of Shivaji. In Hindu culture, all work begins with an invocation to Ganpati. It is in keeping with the tradition that Jijamata and Shivaji began their mission of taking back Maharashtra from Adil Shah. Shivaji had great faith in Ganesh and believed that all his success was due to the Lord’s blessings

The tradition continued with the Peshwas, who prayed to Ganpati. When Peshwa Bajirao had Shaniwarwada constructed, he set up Ganesh in the fort. There is a Ganesh mandir above one door, which can be seen even today. They built that door first. Even the durbar hall was called Ganesh Rang Mahal, where a gold idol of Ganesh was established. During “Bhadrapat”, a clay idol of Ganesh would be placed and Ganeshotsav was celebrated with vigour.

The seven-day festival would witness performances by musicians and dancers from all over India, representing ghagras from Calcutta to Gwalior. Thousands of visitors flocked for darshan and were served prasad and food.

Historical files reveal that Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations were initiated in Maharashtra by Chatrapati Shivaji, to promote a culture of nationalism; Peshwas also celebrated the festival because they worshipped Lord Ganapati as their family deity or Kuldewta. It is said that after the end of the Peshwa rule, Ganesh Chaturthi remained a family affair in Maharashtra from the period of 1818 to 1892. People used to bring the Ganesh statues and celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi at home.

Lokmanya Tilak

After the rule of the Peshwas ended and the colonial era began, the grand Ganeshotsav that used to

be held at Shaniwarwada also stopped. In the palaces of the Gaekwads of Baroda, the Holkars of Indore and the Scindias of Gwalior, however, Ganeshotsav continued with fervour. In 1880, a group from Pune went to Gwalior and saw the Ganeshotsav there. They thought that the festival, which had started in Pune, should happen in Pune as well. They spoke to Lokmanya Tilak about this. Tilak was busy with the freedom struggle but he noticed that people were too scared of the British to collect in one place. Unless people come together, how would they fight the British? In 1857, the British had suppressed the war of independence and killed the revolutionaries, so fear had set into the hearts of people. Tilak had an idea that the Ganesh puja being held in every home in Pune should be made into a community or sarvajanik worship. He made up his mind to place Ganesh ji in every chowk.

While Ganesh Chaturthi has been celebrated in Indian homes from time immemorial, it was Lokmanya Tilak who made this festival a public celebration.

In 1893 he organized the first public Ganesh Chaturthi in order to create unity and awareness about the freedom struggle among the masses. Since then, it has become a hugely popular public festival while continuing to be a private family occasion as well.

1857 was a landmark year for India and more so in the context of Indian freedom. It was the year of the Sepoy Mutiny, an armed rebellion against the ruling British Empire by the Indian soldiers. Though unsuccessful, this battle marked the beginning of the Indian struggle for independence. Many orators, leaders and freedom fighters all over India teamed to put up a united resistance to British domination. Greatly esteemed by the Indian people, especially of Maharashtra, Tilak was commonly referred to as “Lokmanya” or “he who is regarded by the people”.

Tilak saw how Lord Ganesha was worshipped by the upper section as well as the rank and file of India. The visionary in him realized the cultural importance of this deity and he popularised Ganesha Chaturthi as a National Festival. He did it with faith to bridge the gap between the Brahmins and the non-Brahmins and he found an appropriate context in which to build a new grassroots unity between them. He brought unity between the two layers of society as he recognized that it was the need of the hour to fight against the British in Maharashtra. He knew that India couldn’t fight her rulers until she solved the differences within her own. Hence, to unite all social classes Tilak chose Ganesha as a rallying point for Indian protest against British rule because of his wide appeal as “the god for everyman”.

Ganesh Utsav procession photo from early 20th century

Ganesh Chaturthi in its current form was introduced in 1892 when a Pune resident named Krishnajipant Khasgiwale visited Maratha-ruled Gwalior, where he witnessed the traditional public celebration and brought it to the attention of his friends, Bhausaheb Laxman Javale and Balasaheb Natu back home in Pune. Javale, who was also known as Bhau Rangari installed the first sarvajanik or public Ganesha idol following this.

Lokmanya Tilak praised Javale's efforts in an article in his newspaper, Kesari, in 1893 and even installed a Ganesha idol in the news publication's office the next year, and his efforts transformed the annual domestic festival into a large, well-organised public event.

Tilak was the first to install large public images of Ganesha in pavilions and established the practice of submerging the idols in rivers, the sea or other bodies of water on the tenth day of the festival.

Encouraged by him, Ganesh Chaturthi or Ganeshotsav, became a meeting ground for people from all castes and communities at a time when the British discouraged social and political gatherings to control the population. The festival facilitated community participation and involvement in the forms of intellectual discourse, poetry recitals, plays, concerts, and folk dances.

One of the characteristics of the Pune Ganeshotsav is that it is not an exclusively Hindu festival. People from different religions, regions and caste denominations participate in it. You will find that the artisans, who create the idols, to the craftsmen, who design the decorations, to the presidents of Ganeshotsav mandals are, frequently, Muslims or Christians. Ganeshotsav in Pune is an all-encompassing festival,” says historian Pandurang Balkawade. He explains how Ganesh Puja is a socio-cultural phenomenon with deep roots in heritage, tradition and politics.

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