Every year, 35 organisers and more than 1200 volunteers come together to help Mumbai’s most famous Ganesh Mandal, Lalbaughca Raja, function.
It is August in Mumbai, and that means the city is caught in downpour. Though it’s not the typical cats-and-dogs kind of rain, the clogged drains have resulted in overflow onto the road, with the occasionally moving traffic splashing muck around further. But all this does not seem to deter the enthusiasm of the endlessly long queue of devotees, all barefoot, waiting with garlands, sweets and offerings, occasionally bursting into chants of “Ganpati bappa morya.” Patiently, they wait their turn to visit the most famous Ganpati Mandal in Mumbai – Lalbaugcha Raja.
“Often the queues are four or five kilometres long. It is intense devotion and a deep belief that motivates all these people to come here every year. They know that Bappa answers their prayers, which is why he is also called Navascha (granter of wishes) Ganpati,” says Amol Apte, one of the key volunteers, trying to explain the phenomenon.
“This one began as a small mandal made by the Kolis, the local fishing community, here in the Peru Compound in 1928, a few years after Lokmanya Tilak, a renowned national leader, began the celebration as a means of community engagement during the freedom movement.”
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Over the last 74 years, it has grown immensely popular and so large in scale, that there is now a core committee of 35 members, with over 1,200 volunteers, who work all through the year to ensure that the event goes off without a hitch.
“Right from managing the different kind of queues, to facilitating the devotees’ food, water and services, the tasks are assigned and divided between us all. Along with religious feeling, it is a spirit of community and social service which motivates us all to work for Raja,” says Amol, who was born and brought up in the neighbourhoods of Lalbaug and Parel.“Every aspect of the work here is elaborate.”
Being in a dense suburb with a dearth of space, a lot of planning is required, whether it is to build multiple makeshift shelters and bridges for the devotees, or to make and install the 12-foot-tall idol.
“For 50 years, Venkatesh Kamble and now, his nephew, Santosh Kamble have been making the idol. The ornamentation that you see are offerings; however, the simplicity is that the idol is the same every year. They have used the same mould for the last 50 years; it has been patented as well. But beyond just organising the event, the committee has a vision for the local community; our chairman Sudhir Salvi has spearheaded their activity to ensure this,” Amol says.
Explaining the philanthropic vision, Amol goes on to add: “We have set up a free library and a couple of computer knowledge institutions to educate and empower youth, and to provide them with vocational training.”
“The mandal also runs a dialysis centre for a nominal fee, along with providing medical funds to needy patients in a few government hospitals in the city.”
Amol observes how the history and development of his locality overlaps with the evolution of the mandal. One example is the use of technology like surveillance cameras and intercom systems to ensure an almost corporate-efficiency in the working of the mandal.
“Lalbaug has been an area of the kaamgar (working class), given the large number of mills in the area. Back then, when many migrated from the interiors of Maharashtra and Gujarat to work in the mills, the landlords provided chawls and schools close to the workplace. People did not have to travel beyond 1.5 km for anything, but only 25 percent of the population was educated. Subsequently, when the mills shut down, the crime rate increased. I remember, in my growing years, we faced a lot of discrimination from the upmarket Dadar residents. Even in schools, students from Parel and Byculla areas were not admitted,” says Amol, about the lack of mobility and education which, for decades, hampered the growth in the area.
“Over the last two decades, the thinking has evolved. Education has played a huge role. We also look at the redevelopment of these areas as a hope for better facilities. Unlike our elders, who thought that the builders were here to swindle us, education and political consciousness has armed us with the abilitiy to negotiate for our betterment,” says Amol, who has studied automobile engineering and represents a new wave of entrepreneurship.
“Now, everyone is thinking beyond the ‘job mentality’ and a few are coming forward as entrepreneurs. After working for Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd. for a couple of years, I decided to take up real estate. It is far more fulfilling to be my own boss. It also gives me time to follow my political interests; I actively work and support a local party,” he says.
So, is it political aspirations that motivate him to work for the mandal? He is quick to deny this: “Working for Lalbaugcha Raja is an honour; it’s social work. The people involved in the work belong to different political banners. However, under the umbrella of Bappa, we are all united.”
“You will not find a single political hoarding or flag on the premises. Bappa connects us all! It is a message for all people who are divided by caste, creed and community.”
He explains that on the 10th day, the procession that is taken out to immerse the idol is one of the longest in the city. “It passes through the old town, through the old Gujarati and Mohammedan districts of CP Tank, Do Tanki and Agripada, and finally reaches Girgaum after 22 hours. The belief in the deity is so strong that without any barriers of religion, people flock to pay their respect during the procession.”
Girgaum Chowpatty and the other beaches in the city are filled chock-a-block with tourists, devotees and volunteers during the final days of the puja. The sea of humanity watches as idols from all over the city are immersed in the sea in one of the biggest spectacles Mumbai has to offer. Lalbaugcha Raja is supposed to be the last idol in the city to be immersed, marking the end of the 10-day-long festivity. Ganesha or Ganpati, the Hindu god of wisdom and luck, bids adieu to his devotees, promising to visit them with the same grandeur the next year.
Written by Nisha Nair-Gupta
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