Traditionally, idols were sculpted from the mud of nearby water bodies, worshipped with reverence and at the culmination of the festivities returned to their source, a representation of the natural cycle of creation and dissolution. But with each passing year the idols have become grander, gaudier and less green. Customarily the idols were taken for the final immersion amid celebration and bonhomie. Invitations to return were extended with jubilant singing and dancing on the streets. Now each year the processions just get rowdier and more boisterous.
Once a fairly sedate and private ‘Ganesh Chaturthi’ and ‘Durga Puja’ have become a public spectacle requiring efficient crowd management during the celebration and large scale clean up afterwards. Although it is celebrated all over India Durga puja is predominantly celebrated in West Bengal and Odisha and Ganpati Visarjan is a part of Maharashtra’s tradition. Recent studies conducted across these states have demonstrated rapid deterioration of water quality in lakes, streams and rivers as a result of this practice of idol immersion. Nowadays the idols are made of non biodegradable materials such as plastic, cement and Plaster of Paris which when consigned to water decreases the penetration of light causing eutrophication. Mercury and lead containing toxic dyes, paints and varnishes are used for decoration which pollute the water and find way into our food cycle. Also the pH and Oxygen level of contaminated water decreases harming marine life
Just as our constitution guards our right to practice religious traditions we also have the right to clean water. Faith must be respected but there is a growing need to regulate this practice to save the environment. Since this involves sentiments of worshippers the government has to introduce these guidelines with great sensitivity. Some commendable idol immersion practices which have been introduced in parts of the country should be applauded and followed.
The Central Pollution Control Board directed local bodies to provide dedicated immersion points with synthetic liners at the bottom of artificial bodies. Idols are immersed under supervision and removed from the water bodies within 48 hours. Pune Municipal Corporation installed large kalash shaped bins to collect accessories like flowers, clothes etc used in worship. In Goa the sale of plaster-of Paris Ganesha idols has been banned and devotees are encouraged to buy traditional, artisan-made clay ones.
Some steps have been more radical like the Allahabad high court banned immersion of idols in Ganga & Yamuna rivers in Uttar Pradesh even dismissing the plea of state government that idols should be dipped and then taken out immediately. The order was given in response to a Public Interest Litigation filed by an environmentalist. Before the state is forced to take such strict action elsewhere, we as responsible citizens should do our bit. Temples and spiritual gurus should lead the drive of creating awareness among people so that the state’s burden can be reduced and religious feelings are not hurt.
Our traditions dictate that the idol should be made of shadu mati, a kind of clay found on the river banks. Papier-mâché can also be used. The idol should be small and unbaked so that it dissolves in water easily. Only natural colours and dyes should be used to decorate it. Stone-and-brass idols can be symbolically immersed and reused. Idols should be immersed in artificial bodies and not in lakes, rivers or the sea.
The believers should understand that idol immersion in its present form is not only harmful for the environment but also an insult to Lord Ganesh and Goddess Durga. The remains of non- biodegradable idols, robbed of their splendour, wash up on our shores and lie helplessly till they are removed by local government bodies. Not a pretty sight for the devout and non believer alike. As we fervently chant Ganapati Bappa Moraya Agale Baras Tu Juldi Aa lets be responsible and invite Him in an environment friendly, traditional ‘shadu mati’ avatar next year.
( carried in The Hindustan Times on 1/9/2017)