Vinayaka Chaturthi is here. As I pass huge Ganeshas in neon colors sitting patiently in neat rows waiting to be claimed by those who passionately love the vibrant pink, yellow, greens and gold, I smile to myself, seeking, searching through the thronging crowds of deities and devotees for my perfect idol. A simple old-fashioned clay image is all I seek: the kind my father always bought. The brown unassuming image appeals to me still, standing out with quiet presence among all the flashy replicas. The clay Ganesha is stately, elegant, bearing the quiet dignity of its earthy message: a forming of opportunity from nascent ideas.
The idol is traditionally created from amorphous clay; a way of physically molding our hopes and desires, of shaping our year to come in the form of the divinity that removes all obstacles from our paths. Tradition demands that we venerate the raw form; appreciate the value of potential and bring our potential to fruition.
Ganeshas made for this event are supposed to be raw, an unfinished product, sculpted the way Parvati created her child out of her essences. The clay, dug from dry tank beds that lie with parched faces open to the sky expectant of rain, is shaped into the familiar figure of the portly elephant god and venerated. Rains come and the deities, now silently bearing our messages, our prayers and wishes, get immersed in the water that rejuvenates the dry landscape. The idols disappear without any tell tale debris at the bottom of the lake bed, keeping secret the unfulfilled wishes our hearts revealed in fervent prayer, and with them, we release ourselves and cast our potential into the universe without tangible trace.
The seamless act, the creation, veneration and dissolution of the idol and with it the development, action and completion of our hopes for the future are striking in perfect concept. There was no waste, no debris of plaster of paris or papier-mache, no remnants of cluttered and confused thoughts, just the silence of powerful will and enduring hope that connects us to our earth.
As a child, I remember discarding my Levis for a beautiful pattu pavadai for the occasion. My mother would rinse my dense long hair and braid a loose single strand aathukattu. I wore simple jewelry and rushed out to my father's waiting car. Mother would see us off with a smile, placing on my lap a manai or a large brass plate with a beautiful kolam on it. My father would have put some extra bags and baskets in the back. I would wave to her with excitement as we backed out of our driveway, "bye, see you soon." She would wave back smiling in her lotus pink nine-yard silk sari shot with gold thread and go back in the house to attend to the preparations for the voracious appetite of the exalted guest my father and I were to bring home.
Looking back, I am amazed that it was a given that I would participate in the excitement of choosing and bringing home the Ganesha. This was a daughter's time with Dad, our project and most-important-job for the occasion. I was not expected to stay home and wait. After this important duty, I would help my mother at home.
Dad would park the car and we'd get out, taking the tambalam or manai with us. He would never bother to lock the car, but would head for the nearest stall in the bustling market. I would rush to catch up, protecting my pavadai from the inevitable rain puddles. We would each select clay idols and offer it to the other for approval. He did not like the belly of mine. I did not like the ears of his. We moved on, this vendor had made his idols in a hurry. We'd search for the perfect image, taking our time until we were both satisfied. Dad would bargain, and buy. The vendor would take the tray from my hand and secure the idol on it with a lump of wet clay. He would set the red and black seeds in the clay image as eyes, handing me a few extra that I would clutch carefully. We placed Mr. Ganesha in the backseat and went looking for umbrellas.
The early umbrellas were gorgeous creations of colored thread and bamboo. They became more fancy with time: paper cut creations, gold paper umbrellas, tasseled, beaded and the latest, shiny streamer varieties stuck on poles wound with hay, eagerly hawked by wandering vendors. I remember dad used to linger, admiring these different creations. We would look at the variety and he would take one from a pile and show to me, exclaiming at the beautiful and neat handwork that went into its making. We'd get the umbrella, buy a basket with a small bundle of fresh grass, strings of white strange looking buds that were supposed to be flowers, (father always bought several extra strands) some hard skinned fruit that looked inedible, and then the usual fruits, betel leaves, bananas, coconuts and banana saplings. I took this motley group of offerings for granted until one day I made the connection, Ganesha was a wild elephant. He loved grass and forest fruit and was garlanded by the wild and common erukkum flower, the milkweed flower. I could imagine this happy elephant gorging himself on fresh bananas and the tender saplings, eating through all that was offered with gusto.
We took Ganesha home and proudly showed mother. We placed him in the Pooja and my father bathed, changed into his white veshti and angavastram and sat down to decorate the Pooja. I helped garland Ganesha and tie the banana saplings on either side of him. We secured the umbrella behind him with another lump of clay. He already looked grand. I took care to place the grass and the elandai fruit within reach. Delicious smells wafted from the kitchen as mother got the Neividhya ready. She had already made the coconut jaggery paahu, the hot gooey fragrant filling that turned from molten lava into a thick mass that held together and slid off her ladle as she stirred it. It had to cool a little before we could roll it into balls. In the meantime, we had started making the white cups from the kneaded rice flour dough. These little receptacles would hold the jaggery coconut balls and we would seal them and pinch the end until they looked like little garlic pods. They had to be steamed to make the sweet kozhakattais or modaks. Milk boiled for kheer, vadais hissed in hot oil and the pressure cooker whistled declaring the mahaneivithya of rice, done.
We performed the Pooja with enthusiasm. I rang the bell at every opportunity, sometimes giving into temptation to listen to the clear tinkle that resonated through the house. We offered the sweet and savory kozhakattais to Ganesha, plied Him with fruit and coconut and sought His blessings with a namaskara. My father got up from his Pooja and popped a delicious sweet ball that melted in my watering mouth. We took all the prasadam that Ganesha had officially tasted and tucked into it, sating the pangs of hunger that emerged from nowhere!
Ganesha sat patiently in our Pooja for three days, each day enjoying the home made delicacies, listening to our family chatter and probably pondering the best thing for each of us until we took Him to the well to immerse Him. He fell in with a loud thud. Ripples agitated the water of our little well until all fell silent. I gazed into the depths for a long time wondering where Ganesha took my prayers, and looking forward to His visit next year.
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