Dotted around Korat city is an ever-growing and strengthening community of Indians, each family stemming from one different province of India to the other. I am in many ways, very lucky and blessed with the experiences I’ve had over the past year and the constant learning curves they give. On the 27th September, good fortune struck again and I had the pleasure of joining the Indian residents of Korat to celebrate Puja of Ganesh Chaturthi. Having never heard of Chaturthi and only knowing Ganesha as a Hindu elephant-headed god, I wasn’t too sure what to expect, the only advice for the day being “maybe you should pack a swimming costume…”
The Hindu deity, Ganesha, is indeed the one with the elephant head, and is in fact also widely worshipped in Thailand. To most Hindus, Ganesha is the most worshipped and most significant God of the countless deities Hinduism staples its beliefs to. As the lord of beginnings, people will often pray with thoughts of things they’re about to start in mind. It is believed he will remove obstacles we might find when we begin something new, such as a business, or a relationship.
The festival in turn celebrates Ganesha and is held in his honour. A few women told me before the celebration started that in preparation for the festival, huge clay images of the deity are proceeded down the streets of even the biggest cities in India on a float. Traffic is halted and the streets are cleared before the image is taken to the sea and is immersed in the water. The celebrations in this part of Asia took place on a smaller scale at a new-to-the-block Indian family’s beautiful home. They had prepared a pandal (a temporary shrine) where every morning and evening of the ten days prior to Sunday 27th, the family would pray to their own murti (clay image) of Ganesha. Flowers from the nearby trees were offered during this time, and some women chose to fast for the ten days too, keeping their diet to a minimal amount of selected fruit or vegetables. Those from provinces that would usually eat white meat and fish abstained from doing so at this time.
Sunday 27th was Puja, the last day of the festival, and I witnessed each family come together and pray with song, the children of the families taking turns to play small cymbals, called manjeera, and other percussion while each member chanted. In India, families would often use nagra, which are huge circular drums. The chant itself was a prayer to Lord Ganesha, sang in Marathi rather than Hindi, as a language more specific to the host family’s province. It consists of two prayers, which people clap to in a typical 1-23-4 rhythm; in India, it’s customary to dance and throw vibrant colours in the air too.
When the prayers are finished, fresh flowers are again picked and offered to Ganesha. In this gesture, the purity comes from the scent – smelling the flower will remove its purity, so it cannot be offered anymore. A small dumpling called a modak is given to each person present and is a sweet offering to Ganesha, as it’s believed to be his favourite sweet! The modak is pinched at the top to liken itself to a lotus flower. Usually, the modak has a thick milk inside, though every region has its own variety of modak. The host family’s modak was like a blend with a ladoo (another one of Ganesha’s favourite treats) and had a sweet coconut and cardamom mixture inside instead. Who knew Ganesha had such a sweet tooth?
After an uncomfortable and long hour in the boot of a car with five excited 10 year olds, the group found a fresh running water source to carry out the last part of the ceremony. Here, a final prayer was made to the clay idol, each person taking a moment for individual praise, then the image was carried down through the darkness to the stream, and slowly immersed, while others continued the chant. The idol is often made by individual families, and it’s believed that over the course of ten days, through offerings and prayer, the image of Ganesha gains power. With the immersion, the clay washes away into the water. This act is seen as what roughly translates to “come back again soon”.
The day was ended with a real feast, all food flavourful and vegetarian. Each family had brought a dish along – some were well-known, such as aloo gobi; some were completely alien to me. The host family had made a special “vada pao”, a potato patty in a bun that they eat as we from the western world might eat a burger. I know which one I’d prefer…
Happy Ganesh Chaturthi, everybody! I wish all your beginnings to be successful and calamity free.