Lokmanya Tilak turned Ganeshotsav from private celebration to community festival, says historian

Dipanita Nath
At the Shrimant Dagdusheth Halwai Ganesh Temple and pandal. (Express photo by Ashish Kale)

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. Excerpts from the conversation:

One of the noticeable changes in Ganeshotsav, over the years, has been the growth of dhol tasha groups. Now, police issue stipulations about the maximum number of members a group can have. What is the importance of the dhol tasha in Ganeshotsav?

A replica of the proposed Ram Mandir at Ayodhya made by the Sane Guruji Tarun Mandal near Ambil odha. (Express photo by Pavan Khengre)

Dhol tasha is a part of our military history. During the wars of Shivaji Maharaj, dhol tasha would be played to inspire soldiers. Sainiks would beat big dhols and sing war songs. This fuelled their energies and built the psychology to fight. Now, you see a lot of young men and women, including those working for IT companies, playing dhol tasha with elan. Even 20 years ago, there were not as many dhol tasha groups as we have today in Pune. I believe the current number is around 2,500. You will find many young people taking time out from work to practice for two months before Ganeshotsav. The dhol are big and heavy but they strap them to their bodies and play for four-five hours. There are as many men as women and all of them exude a different kind of energy while playing the dhol tasha.

What is the history of Ganeshotsav in Pune?

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 tradition that Jijamata and Shivaji began their mission of taking back Maharahtra from Adil Shah. Shivaji had great faith in Ganesh and believed that all his success was due to the Lord s blessings.

Pandurang Balkawade

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.

How did Ganeshotsav play a role in India s freedom struggle?

The Akhil Mandai Ganesh Mandal in Chinchwad. (Express photo by Rajesh Stephen)

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 came 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.

How do you see the festival balancing tradition with contemporary realities?

Ganeshotsav is steeped in many traditions. The modak, for instance, is simple concoction of coconut and jaggery in its basic form and Ganesh s favourite food. Across India, gur and coconut are easily available, so the food has a social significance. We still follow traditions such as presenting Ganesh s wives Riddhi and Siddhi during the festival. There are stories about Mooshak, a rakshas who was slain by Ganesh because he was tormenting people. While dying, the rakshas asked for a boon and Ganesh rewarded him by turning him into his vahan. There are new realities in evidence as well. The festival witnesses business of several crore rupees as small and big traders set up stalls to sell food, handicraft and toys, among others, and restaurants and fairgrounds spring up in the city. You ll also find decorations, inspired by themes ranging from Chandrayaan to surgical strikes.