In India, Hindus Work Around Coronavirus To Praise God Ganesh, Obstacle Remover : Coronavirus Updates Mumbai officials get creative to allow devotees to celebrate the elephant-headed god safely, even as virus cases surge in other parts of India.

Hindus Work Around Coronavirus To Celebrate God Ganesh, Remover Of Obstacles

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Around this time of year, millions of people typically gather on the shores of India's financial capital Mumbai. They're there to celebrate one of India's biggest religious festivals honoring Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god. But this year, the pandemic means big processions are prohibited. And city officials have had to come up with some creative ways to help the faithful celebrate, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Here is what the festival sounded like this time last year on Mumbai's Arabian Sea coast.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

FRAYER: Those chants of praise for Ganesh, or Lord Ganesha, are like a soundtrack to summer's end. It's when the monsoon rains let up and faithful hold a 10-day festival honoring the Hindu god of wisdom and luck, who's depicted with a human body and an elephant head. But in the era of COVID, it all sounds quite different.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking non-English language).

FRAYER: That's a Hindu priest livestreaming prayers this year. Traditionally, huge crowds gather to immerse their idols of the elephant god into the sea or a pond. But this year, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, city officials are bringing artificial ponds to the people instead.

KIRAN DIGHAVKAR: We have created a mobile artificial pond. If you call our helpline number, we will provide a truck at your doorstep.

FRAYER: Assistant Commissioner Kiran Dighavkar has outfitted municipal trucks with giant water tanks. They pull up to your house. You say a prayer...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

FRAYER: ...And immerse your idol in the back of the truck. Each night, the water tanks get emptied for the next day's rounds.

DIGHAVKAR: Entire service is free. Everybody's thermal-screened for temperature. And we are making sure that they are wearing masks. Obviously, they are washing their hands. It's a very godly atmosphere. Nobody tends to violate the rules.

FRAYER: Normally, it's a massive party with millions of people handing out sweet dumplings. There'd be parade floats with giant statues of Ganesh, some multiple stories high. This year, idols have to be under 2 feet to fit in the water tanks. Some of them are COVID-themed, showing Ganesh in a surgical mask. There are even idols that double as hand sanitizer dispensers. One woman told local TV how she made her Ganesh idol out of chocolate this year...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: ...So that she can immerse it in milk at home instead of in the sea. In Mumbai, only municipal workers are allowed to approach the sea this year, and there have been far fewer immersions. That's a relief to Indranil Sengupta and Rabia Tewari, the husband-and-wife founders of a Mumbai beach cleanup. In past years, thousands of Ganesh idols would wash up on the beach near their home despite a push to make more of them biodegradable.

INDRANIL SENGUPTA: It's actually a very sad sight to see because you're worshipping this idol, and then you just discard it. And also, they're toxic. They've been made of chemicals. We've literally seen dying fish around the time of the immersions.

RABIA TEWARI: And I was noticing just last night that I barely saw anybody going into the sea for the immersions. This was the aim of environmentalists all these years to, you know, reduce the pollution.

SENGUPTA: I just wish we didn't have to wait for a drastic pandemic like this.

FRAYER: For them, it's been a silver lining for India's environment in an otherwise difficult time during the pandemic.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News.

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