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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 45, Dated 10 Nov 2012
    Jay Mazoomdaar

    An Unholy Tradition

    The environment was the toast of several puja pandals. But in the end, thousands of idols still lined up for immersion in rivers and lakes

    Jay Mazoomdaar, Independent Journalist

    Holy mess Thousands of idols were dumped in the Hooghly last week

    EVERY DURGA puja in Bengal, organisers and artisans and craftsmen aspire to be at their creative best. Temporary pandals, their decoration and even idols convey carefully chosen messages. From victimisation of Sourav Ganguly to the evils of US foreign policy, the themes have ranged from parochial to international in the past. This year, at least two dozen Kolkata pujas were built on green ideas.

    The plight of the Bengal tiger has inspired puja organisers in the past. This time, puja themes went the whole hog, from the dangers of human cloning to ocean pollution in Goa, water conservation, impact of global warming on insects, butterfly conservation and, not surprisingly, scarcity of Hilsa. More than half-a-dozen pujas showcased tribal culture and ethos, while others vowed to save the earth and plant trees. At least two highlighted the plight of the Ganga.

    Yet, once the puja was over, thousands of idols were taken to the river and a few designated lakes and ponds in the city and hundreds across the state. In Delhi, organisers complained that enough water was not released in the Yamuna and the idols had to be dumped on the mud.

    In Kolkata, massive infrastructure has been put in place in the recent years to lift the idols with cranes immediately after immersion to keep the river clean. But it is impossible to recover every chunk of clay and straw painted in leaden colours that floats away and starves the water systems of oxygen.

    To be fair, a few organisers opted for metallic or fibreglass idols that became collector’s items after the festival. Others used organic colours. But these have been exceptions. One guilt-stricken organiser, who strived to create awareness about pollution in the Ganga, admitted that their idols, too, were immersed in a local south Kolkata lake designated by the administration. “Our huge Shiva structure has not been immersed. We will ask the fire brigade to dismantle it. But the rest of the idols had to be immersed. We didn’t have a choice because that is the religious tradition,” he explained uncomfortably.

    Religion, though, does not demand immersion of idols in rivers and lakes. Priests agree that the custom of tarpan — where hymns are chanted while the idol’s face is reflected in water held in a saucer — completes the immersion process. There is no bar on using the same set of idols for subsequent pujas. Yet, there are few takers for non-clay idols for long-term use or doing away with the tradition of physical dumping of the paraphernalia in natural waters.

    A few organisers opted for metallic or fibreglass idols, which became collector’s items

    Instead, ineffectual solutions such as barricading parts of the river and other water bodies with concrete walls to demarcate permanent immersion zones are being discussed. Blocking a river in its course or further eating into fast depleting lakes and ponds is too high a cost for continuing with such an outdated and dispensable custom.

    Be it Ganapati in Mumbai or Durga in Kolkata, the immersion of idols today merely serves as a social excuse for extended celebration at the end of the festival routine. Environment-friendly alternatives, such as “dissolving” the idols with water jets in concrete tanks to prevent leaching of chemicals into natural water systems, are not likely to compromise that fun.

    ORIENTAL RELIGIOUS traditions have always worshipped nature. The Prithvi Sukta (earth hymn) in the Atharva Veda is possibly the most ancient expression of environmentalism. With changing times, soulless customs have replaced those values. Today, we make monsters of monkeys by feeding them to compensate for our sin. We trample over and litter our best forests on pilgrimages. We parade elephants, sacrifice goats and dump everything — from mortal remains to daily puja flowers — in the rivers.

    But if sprinkling a few drops of Ganga water is believed to have the purifying effect of a dip in the river, why do we need more than a saucerful for the ritual of immersion?

    Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.
    [email protected]

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 45, Dated 10 Nov 2012



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