India's Ganesh Festival: Mumbai Parties, Prays For Elephant-Headed God For 10 days, they sing, dance, chant and pray at the feet of Ganesh statues, then submerge them in water. The festival was once used to circumvent British rule.

Indians Are Partying And Praying For Elephant-Headed God Ganesh

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Indian coastal city of Mumbai hosts one of the country's biggest festivals honoring Lord Ganesha. He's the Hindu god who has a human body and an elephant head. The faithful pray before idols of him and then immerse them in bodies of water. Here's NPR's Lauren Frayer from Mumbai and the culmination of the 10-day festival.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It's like a sea of people that comes down to meet the Arabian Sea, all hoisting statues of the elephant god Lord Ganesha on their shoulders. There are families. Behind me, there's a pack of teenage boys with a rainbow elephant on their shoulders. They do a prayer in the sand, and then they move slowly down to the sea and submerge their idol.

AMRUTA SAVANT: Before we immerse, we believe that we have to tell our wishes in Ganesha's ears, so those wishes get fulfilled next year.

FRAYER: Amruta Savant is here with her uncles and children all singing.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Marathi).

FRAYER: Praise Lord Ganesha in the local Marathi language - then they kneel down one by one and whisper their wishes into the statue's ears. Ganesh - or Lord Ganesha - is the Hindu god of wisdom and good luck. And Amruta says he's been good to her family.

SAVANT: We have a lot of faith. And we have seen the time from where, you know, like, we used to not spend so much. And the celebration was limited. But every year, we have prosperity. And we are getting our wishes fulfilled. So you know the faith goes on increasing.

FRAYER: Lifeguards man the beach as faithful, young and old, wade into the waves. They believe when Lord Ganesha is submerged, he goes straight to heaven.

SAVANT: We just dip him three times. And the third time, we leave him in the water. It will melt in the sea itself.

FRAYER: Many of the idols are now biodegradable, so they don't wash up later or pollute marine life. Whole neighborhoods erect stages with huge statues. In Mumbai's largest slum, idols adorn a warren of impeccably clean, little shacks. Suraj Hattarkal gives tours of them and explains the history.

SURAJ HATTARKAL: People, you know, pray to Lord Ganesha from centuries. But how it turned to be a festival - it has been only started in 1893, when India was under British rule. And a free India independence thing was happening, so there was a curfew declared.

FRAYER: Public gatherings were banned, except for religious ones. So an Indian freedom fighter invented this festival as a cover.

HATTARKAL: He misled the British, saying it's - we have a 10-days festival. And we have to come together and pray for 10 days. So this was the trick to bring the whole community and share all the revolutionary things.

FRAYER: Nowadays, it's a massive party - dancing, drumming. People hand out food in the streets.

ASHISH TIVARI: Everybody shares. We have food for 200 to 300 people.

FRAYER: Ashish Tivari is a medical student here with his neighbors and 8-year-old Vinayak.

VINAYAK: Hi. Hi. I am also his neighbor.

FRAYER: What does Ganesh mean to you?

VINAYAK: He's a god, our god.

FRAYER: And do you make a wish?

VINAYAK: Yes.

FRAYER: What is your wish?

VINAYAK: It is a secret.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language).

FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language).

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