Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Day of Festivals

Festivals are already starting to become a theme in my posts and it's only been two weeks--many more to come. Yesterday we celebrated Onam on the Visthar campus and then we went into Bangalore to observe the Ganesha Festival. 

Onam is a Hindu festival which is celebrated in the state of Kerala (Visthar/Bangalore are in Karnataka). There are many versions and interpretations of the Onam story, but here is the one which I was told:

Mahabali was a well-respected and generous asura (demon) king. The devas (lords), who were becoming fearful of his popularity, asked for Lord Vishnu's help. Vishnu came down to Earth in the form of a dwarf named Vamana and visited Mahabali. Mahabali welcomed Vamana and asked if he would like anything. Vamana requested three paces of land, to which Mahabali agreed. But then Vamana grew to a massive size. With his first step, he covered the Earth. With his second step, he covered the heavens. Having already covered all of the Earth and all of the heavens with just two steps, he asked Mahabali what he should do. Mahabali said that since he promised him three paces, he could take his last step on his head. Before doing so, Vamana asked Mahabali if he would like anything in return. Mahabali requested to be allowed to return to Kerala and to visit his people once each year, which gives us Onam--the coming of Mahabali.

Visthar's very own Mahabali
To celebrate, we processed to the center of campus to the beat of a drum where we met Mahabali. The drum started up again and a few "Hail, Mahabali" cheers were shouted before we continued to the building where the festival was held. Flower petals were arranged in an intricate design on the floor (partially seen above) with Mahabali sitting facing the crowd. Five women dressed in white saris then entered and did a traditional dance before lunch was served.

The Onam feast, sadya, is an entirely vegetarian meal that is served on a banana leaf, with all the vegetables being native to Kerala. Each of the sides is to be eaten with the rice and traditionally there are four helpings of rice, though we were not obligated to eat all four rounds. The following picture I took does not capture the entire meal--food was constantly being served. Not pictured: two desserts, two sauces for the rice, another small helping of rice, and one banana. Traditional games were played after the meal. 

Onam feast--Sadya 

There was enough time for tea between the two festivals. We piled onto a bus and headed to Bangalore to observe the Ganesha festival. My knowledge is very limited, but here's what I know: Ganesh is the god who is represented by the head of an elephant and who brings prosperity and good fortune to those who worship him. 

To celebrate the festival, statues of Ganesh are dunked and submerged in a body of water. Families had small statues like the one in the following picture:

Different communities brought in bigger statues that had to be lifted by crane to be submerged. As you can imagine, there are some environmental impacts from this festival. The statues are made of clay, which dissolves in the water. The bigger statues seemed to have an outer shell of clay and have a structure made of straw. The water used here was contained and separated from the lake though they are thrown into rivers, lakes, and the ocean in other places. Additionally, they were anticipating 150 big statues the night we were there and this festival lasts an entire week--that's a lot of statues.

Throwing Ganesh off the crane platform

This statue brought in by a community was brought in on a flatbed pulled by a tractor. It was so tall that they had to lift up power lines and so wide that it couldn't work with the crane. So tipping it into the water was the next best thing.

Slowly tipping Ganesh

This made quite the splash. The police officer in the picture above took most of the splash for me. Unfortunately, the statue didn't fall far enough into the water. A few men tried to push it further in, but it didn't budge. Then they got the crane going and tried to press it down into the water, but to no avail. 

As we left the festival, traffic was extremely backed up--to the point where people shut off their engines. The on-coming traffic was made up of tractors and buses pulling huge Ganesha statues. There were maybe ten or so that paraded by as we were stopped. Because it's not everyday you see a bus full of non-Indian people, most communities would wave and cheer as they passed us. Others took pictures, sang, danced, and threw flowers at us. I had a nice little pile of flowers by the time we started moving again. This was definitely the most entertaining traffic jam I've ever experienced.

We leave for Koppal tomorrow evening for our first field visit, so no more posts for about a week.


  1. Haha, Emma! I cracked up when I read that line about the police officer taking most of the splash for you.

  2. Poor Ganesh, not fully submirsed. Is this a river in Bangelore? are bigger statues better? do they make them? We are all fascinated with your stories of your trip. keep them coming as you can. loving the pictures, too!

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog entries! Thanks for sharing your experience. I wish you (and Grandma Connie) safe travels and great experiences! Thinking of you way back in Washington IA.