Commonwealth Games Blogs
Removing the obstacles
MUMBAI, INDIA - "Lalbaug Ganpati jana hai."
I directed the taxi driver, a chubby and jovial man with thick eyebrows and a thicker mustache, towards Mumbai's celebrated Ganesh idol.
As I mentioned in my last blog, the elephant-headed Hindu deva Ganesh is known as the Remover of Obstacles, and the god of wisdom and intellect. Fittingly the worship of Ganesh precedes most Hindu ceremonies, rituals, and even acts of writing.
When I learned my visit to Mumbai would coincide with the Ganpati festival, a 10-day celebration of Ganesh, it seemed only natural that I begin by honouring Lord Ganesh, in hopes of inner strength and success in my journey ahead.
The Ganpati (Ganesh) idol in Lalbaug is the largest in Mumbai, and adorned with over 10 kilograms of gold. Perhaps more importantly, this particular idol is believed to grant wishes to those who visit.
In the first couple days of the celebration alone, I'm told that 3.4 million people visited the Lalbaug idol, offering more than 2 crore rupees ($450,500), which will be used for various charities, including a school fund and hospital.
Travelling in and around Mumbai, the trains are full of people with red tikka powder smeared on their foreheads. They waited upwards of 8-10, even 20 hours for a blessing.
Having the privilege of seeing Ganesh in Lalbaug is taken very, very seriously - it is actually a full-contact sport.
My taxi weaved through the city for a full two hours, at an eyelash's width from the other cars. It wasn't rush hour, but the streets were crammed with mini Indian Marutis and ornately-tasselled construction trucks. The vehicles were inter-locked like a Jenga board, and removing just one launched the whole pile into chaos, as they tried to surge forward. I could barely hear the religious music on the radio over the symphony of horns.
Above the road, there were billboards of Amitabh Bachchan, one of Bollywood's longstanding favourites, with his trademark white goatee and shock of perma-black hair. Underneath, stray dogs tiptoed across the corrugated iron roofs of slum housing, looking for a snack.
When we arrived, I jumped out into the swell of people rushing towards the Ganesh statue. Swarms of police toured the area. Although I didn't know it until later, the newspaper headlines that morning warned that two highly sought after "terrorists" were last seen in the area.
I entered as a V.I.P, coasting through the front entrance with my press accreditation. I passed through a maze of stalls selling marigold garlands, coconuts and dumpling sweets made from flour, coconut and jaggery (a type of sugar).
The line merged back quickly with the main cascade of people. There was no escaping the rush, it seemed. As soon as we caught sight of the 14-foot idol, people started chanting praise. We moved forward steadily, but at the last minute were diverted sharply to the left. I pushed forward my offerings of sweets and coconut to a man controlling the line, and he passed me back a coconut and a single flower, my prasad or blessing.
Before even a moment passed, a small woman with thick glasses and henna red hair grabbed my arm to move me along and out of the area. In front of me, in various clearly more V.I.P. lines, people kept moving closer to the beautiful idol.
To get to the base there was certainly another entrance, which I found to the back, guarded by a line of plain clothes workers armed with very aggressive whistles.
There seemed no rhyme or reason why certain people were let in, while others were beat away with deafening whistle blasts. I didn't see money being transferred or favours being asked. I watched in awe while some hopefuls broke through.
To view Anjali's photo essay of the Ganpati Festival, CLICK HERE.
Banged, bruised, but euphoric
On a repeating cycle of roughly three minutes, "team whistle" would get enthusiastic and take on the sweet vendors who lined the path. It was hilarious every time I watched it.
Inside, the V.V.I.P line went on for a few hundred unmoving metres. Eventually, I clambered through the metal detector with all my reporting gear and it didn't beep. Here, like most places in India, the detectors had been switched off.
After a series of prayers, the worshippers stormed to the front for their blessing. Family ties and friendships dissolved instantaneously, as people toppled over their neighbours in the holy race. They revelled in the mushrooming cloud of red tikka powder.
When the rush subsided, I pressed my moist forehead against the crimson powered toes of the imposing Ganesha statue.
I left in a state of euphoria. It's true that I got banged and bruised in the process, but I didn't mind. The crowd was very nice despite the chaos. I emerged with several people who had tumbled in the scrum, and were now covered in a sheen of red, like nicely dusted pastries.
The drama went straight out onto the street, as the worshippers vied for taxis. I was taken aback when a pair of small, round women in bright salwar kameezes and laden with prasad, manoeuvred cleanly around me to the front of the queue (or lack thereof).
I quickly realized that most things in India are likely to be a full-contact sport, so I better get into the game or go home.
Next up: A day with the champions - I travel to Pune to figure out what puts India's shooting team on top and try my hand (fairly unsuccessfully) at mastering a gun.
Anjali Nayar will be blogging for CBCSports.ca before and during the Commonwealth Games, which begin Oct. 3 in Delhi. For real-time coverage, follow her on Twitter.