This article was written on the eve of Ganesha Chathurthi Festival on 19th September 2012
Last night I went to India Cash and Carry to buy Ganesha idol. Since the Ganesha festival was coming up in two days, the place was filled with people wanting to buy pooja material, along with vegetables and other ingredients needed to celebrate the festival. There was a table with Ganesha idols of various types and sizes. There were Ganeshas with a nama and with vibuthi stripes. There were standing, sitting and even dancing Ganeshas. I picked a Ganesha and brought it home. I was driving with Ganesha in the passenger seat next to me. At that moment a lot of memories from my childhood days came back to me.
In those days in order to immere oneself in the festive spirit one only needed to go to the venerable Malleshwaram 8th cross, which is nothing short of being one of the cultural hubs of the city. (I would have said 'The cultural nucleus of Bangalore', but I do not want our friends from Gandhi bazaar to pick a fight with me). On the day before the festival my father would come back from work in the evening and then I would walk with him to Malleswaram 8th cross. The whole street would be bustling with people in a 'standing room only' situation. The joke was that people just had to stand and they would be moved around by the flow of people. This street is lined with shops that sell anything from a nail in a hardware store to high end Saree Palaces selling silk Sarees, But what added color were the vendors on the street side, selling flowers, fruits and vegetables. The day before festival would bring other special items. These included mavina soppu (mango leaves), baale kandhu (banana plants) and banana leaves. The street would be filled with noises of vendors attracting customers and customers haggling with the vendors. During the Ganesha festival I would find one special guy who would call out from somewhere in the crowd "belli nagara, belli nagara, belli naaagra". Both my father and I were attracted to the sing song way he would keep repeating that at frequent intervals with his voice emanating from different directions. But, till now I am not sure what belli naagara is and what it is used for.
The crowd, especially women, young and old, dressed in all sorts of traditional and modern clothes walking around with excitement enhanced the festive spirit and would bring out a sense of community and collective joy. Occasionally we would meet friends and relatives there and chat for a new minutes.
My father would indulge in ceremonial haggling just so as to not feel ripped off. But the vendors never went down a bit and would instead say "habbada timeu. kammi baralla".(It is the festival season. No discount). After shopping with the street vendors and in the 8th cross market, we would join the many people who were walking back home with bags filled with vegetables, fruits and flowers and a pair of banana plants and mango leaves.
A few days before the festival my father would take me and my brother to buy the Ganesha idol. Bringing it home was itself a ceremony. He would carry it on a plate with rice in it. My brother and I would walk next to him shaking the hand bell. We would do this starting from the shops all the way home. My mother and grandmother would be there to receive lord Ganesha.
On the eve of the festival we had to decorate the mantapa for Ganesha. My father had an idea for this. We had a stool which he would invert and keep it on another tepoy. The inverted stool provided a frame to tie the Baale Kandhu and mango leaf torana around it. We would also bring colorful ornaments and crafts made from paper which we hung around the mantapa. Some people would get very fancy and made things that kept rotating behind Ganesha providing a mechanical halo. Oh who can forget the 'serial set' - the string of lights which would go on and off in a pattern.
Large flowers like lotuses or roses would be pinned to the stem of the banana plant. The priest's refrain was "you can keep these flowers for alankara (decoration) only. but you cannot use them for worship because they are not fit for divine consumption."
On the day of the festival we would wake up early and get busy with preparations. It was my job to string mango leaves together and hang them on the doors. My father would do the poooje and I and my brother were assistants. All three of us would wear the traditional panche and moguta after taking bath. My mother and grandmother were busy preparing the special meal and dishes for the day. The pooje ceremony would start when the priest came home. The priest would come early say by 8 only if you had made a 14 advance reservation. Instead if you had made a last minute reservation you had to wait till the priest was done with his services at other houses. Sometime it would take as late as 1.00 pm. Being on empty stomach was required until pooja was over. But owing to a loop hole in this requirement, my father was allowed to have coffee since it was not food by strict definition. My brother and I would get an exemption since we came under the children category and we were allowed to have breakfast - mostly avalakki which was easy to make. My grandmother would make both kaara avalakki and sweet avalakki with jaggery and grated coconut .
Once the priest arrived we would start performing the pooja. My father was the performer-in-chief. The two of us brothers were allowed to worship lord Ganesha at a reduced level. For instance, if my father offered a coconut to the god, we offered a pair of bananas. (The coconut has a higher status in the hierarchy of offerings to the lord)
After the pooja was over, we would feast on the special lunch of the day which included karigadubu and gasagase payasa. This meant that the next program of the adults was to take a nap. Starting at 3:00 groups of kids would start coming asking "ganesha kunDrisideera?" (Do you have Ganesha in your home). They would not wait for the answer but would just enter and hurl a handful of manthrakshate (holy rice) in the direction of the idol, much to the chagrin of my grandmother who was taking a nap right beside ganesha. At around 6:00 pm my friends would congregate near my house and we would go around our area looking at the various public Ganeshas. The evening program would be to invite neighbors and friends for another round of pooje called mangalaarathi. The best part of this was 'usli' a spicy dish made from garbanzo beans. That was then followed by dinner.
After dinner a touch of sadness would creep in since all the excitement was over. More over we had to go to our schools the next day. That was when we would all sigh and say "Oh well the anticipation of the festival was more exciting than the festival itself."
(photos of area around Malleswaram 8th cross)