Chasing the Elephant God: Lanes of Lalbaug Walk (Mumbai)

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One of the many Ganesh shalas in Lalbaug

“I have walked these lanes before, but I haven’t ever seen them,” I found myself telling my girlfriend halfway through Beyond Bombay’s Lanes of Lalbaug Walk last Sunday.

Let me explain, for about five years now, I’ve been going for darshan to Lalbaugcha Raja aka the King of Lalbaug, (probably Mumbai’s most famous Ganesh Pandal) regularly. Thanks to friends in the right places, I manage to sneak in for the VIP darshan every year. I have heard stories of devotees waiting in endless serpentine queues for 20 hours plus and my only reaction has been ‘thank you but no thank you’.

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Entrance to Lalbaugcha Raja pandal

There are five gates to enter Lalbaugcha Raja and over the years, I have gone through each one of them. I have walked over covered drains and past homes as the pressure cookers went off in their kitchens. But I have always been so focused on getting to the darshan and navigating through the sea of humanity that descends on Lalbaug that I have never really noticed the neighbourhood.

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I chanced upon this walk that happens just before Ganesh Chaturthi. From Ganesh shaalas where artists give finishing touches to idols – both big and small, to the aroma of spices at the Mirchi galli and the forgotten dargah of Lal Shah– the walk promised all this and more. So, I signed up immediately to discover Lalbaug, one lane at a time.

The walk is led by Vaydehi Khandelwal, a photographer, who not only knows the area really well but also knows the deepest secrets of Lalbaug. Like the tiny shrine dedicated to a tamasha artist in Hanuman Theatre but more on that later.

Before I tell you about the walk, there’s a little something about the biggest festival in Maharastra. Ganesh Chaturthi celebrates the son of Parvati and Shiva. While Ganesh is revered by all Hindus, this festival is celebrated on this scale only in Maharastra. Until 1893, it used to be a quiet festival at home but during the freedom struggle Bal Gangadhar Tilak transformed it into a large scale community festival to galvanize nationalistic fervour.

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A li’l before Lalbaug, we saw this gigantic Ganpati being transported.

The first stop of the day was at one of the many cavernous ganesh shaalas in the area. The wearhouse was fashioned out of bamboo poles and blue tarpaulin. In the dim glow of bare light bulbs, there were gigantic idols in vibrant colours and glittering jewels (water pollution be damned). The finished idols were all painted, packaged and tagged, waiting to be collected.

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I had no clue that different parts of Ganesh symbolize various things. His big ears suggest that he hears everything, his lotus bearing hand implies enlightenment and the broken tusk indicates wisdom beyond duality. The labour intensive process of handcrafting the rotund Elephant God starts three-to-five months before Ganesh Chaturthi.

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A little down the lane, we visited another shaala that specialized in small idols. Rows upon rows of plaster-of-Paris idols designed, moulded and spray-painted with eye-watering colours waited to be chosen by devotees. Customers weaved through rows, looking at styles (seated, reclining, Krishna-hued, standing, bald and this year’s special is inspired by the blockbuster film Baahubali). Vaydehi told us that idols that don’t find a home are destroyed which just made me a wee bit sad.

Baahubali inspired Ganesh
Baahubali inspired Ganesh

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This tabla and dhol shop was getting ready for the festivities.

As we walked back towards the Lalbaugcha Raja pandal, the neighbourhood was slowly but surely waking up. Street hawkers were setting up their stalls with decorations for the puja and vada pau and tea vendors were doing brisk business as everyone was fueling up for the day.

Inside Lalbaugcha Raja pandal

The empty Lalbaugcha Raja pandal was almost unrecognizable to me. I am used to seeing barricades teeming with lakhs of devotees who visit over the 10 days of the festival. As two security guards kept an eye on our group, Vaidehi told us about the Lalbaugcha Raja statue, which has been crafted by Kambli Arts for three generations now; the design for the 12-foot idol is patent protected by the family.  According to news reports, this year the Raja will sit in a glittering ‘sheesh mahal’ (a palace handcrafted with coloured glass) designed by Bollywood art director Nitin Chandrakant Desai.

Coming up: Part 2 of Chasing the Elephant God: Lanes of Lalbaug Walk that features the fragrant Masala Galli, a Parsi colony and a Sufi dargah

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