Gods must go green, say Mumbai authorities

Officials in Mumbai ask that statues thrown into rivers for a festival worshipping elephant god Ganesh be made out of clay, not plaster of Paris, to protect the waterway.

Amana Fontanella-Khan
While statue for the festival are typically made of plaster of Paris, environmentalists request clay.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

In the run-up to the Indian festival Ganesh Chaturthi, which celebrates the Hindu elephant god Ganesh, the message coming from the local Mumbai authorities is: The gods must go green. During the festival, which takes place in September, the household idols are carried to the ocean, where they are immersed and then left to sink to the seabed.

This displeases the city’s growing number of environmentalists.

The size of the idols is a matter of pride for the faithful, and some can be as large as trucks. They are also decorated with tinsel, paint, and garlands. Given that more than 200,000 household gods are sunk on the same day, the environmental impact of the festival is high. Many of the paints used contain heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium, and the plaster of Paris sculptures are not biodegradable.

Getting people to move from plaster of Paris to ecofriendly clay runs against the religious sentiment of some worshipers. Ashok Khato, an idol sculptor in Mumbai, says: “A lot of emotions are attached to this festival, and people want to have large idols. The problem is that, if an idol is over 5 ft., we can’t do it in clay. I have to give my clients what they want.”

Suresh Shetty, the state environment minister, knows that it will take a while until attitudes change. “We are not forcing you to use clay idols today, but our effort is to introduce the concept [for] the future,” he says.

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