The only celebration at Lalbaug this year will be at Peru Chawl, the historic settlement from where Mumbai’s most popular Ganpati pandal rose.
On Wednesday, the Lalbaugcha Raja Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav cancelled its festivities, which were due to begin on August 22, citing the Covid-19 pandemic. The mandal instead announced a 10-day awareness campaign for cured patients to donate plasma and a blood donation drive at its office in the chawl — where it all began.
Local fishermen and street vendors living in the chawl, who hawked their wares in the open, had set up the mandal in 1934 after succeeding in a two-year-long effort to persuade their landlord Rajabai Tayyabali to set aside a plot to build a permanent market.
The residents credited Lord Ganesha with granting their wish and first worshipped an idol later that year, a custom unbroken since then. Over the decades, Lalbaugcha Raja has gained a reputation as the God who grants wishes of the faithful and the pandal in Parel attracts several lakh devotees every year.
City historian Bharat Gothoskar, who runs Khaki Tours, said that Lalbaug derives its name from the Lal Shah Dargah dedicated to the Sufi saint Lal Shah Baba.
A shrine dedicated to his brother Chand Shah — which is cared for by a Hindu family after it was damaged during the 1992 communal riots — is located in the adjacent Chivda Galli. Another origin theory pins the name to a bungalow named Lalbaug built on Parel island by a merchant who prospered during the British rule.
“Many wealthy merchants built palatial homes on the islands of Mazgaon and Parel away from Fort, which is where the Britishers lived,” Gothoskar said. Parel also assumed significance in 1771 when then Governor of Bombay, William Hornby, shifted his residence to Government House, which now houses the Haffkine Institute.
Walking tours in Lalbaug’s cramped bylanes are extremely popular among both Mumbai residents keen to learn about the city’s history and tourists. “People assume that the pandal where the idol is worshipped is a huge area but when we actually take them there, they discover that it is just 20 to 25 feet wide. It is hard to believe that such a large idol emerges every year from such a narrow lane,” Gothoskar said.
Santosh Kambli of Kambli Arts, which has been designing the towering Lalbaugcha Raja idol for four generations, said that Wednesday’s decision was taken at a teary-eyed meeting at Peru Chawl. “Dil pe paththar rakhke kiya hai (We have done this with a heavy heart). But this a decision taken in the interest of people’s well-being,” he added.
The family had been prepared to begin work a moment’s notice for the last month. Santosh said that his father Ratnakar, who is now in his 80s and only works on the idol’s eyes, too was in favour of letting the year pass by without the annual festival. Reducing the height of the idol to four feet to meet the BMC’s requirement was also out of the question, as the scriptures do not allow for it, he said.
“At every pandal, there are two idols — the smaller is meant to be worshipped and the larger one is only a representation. At Lalbaug, there is only one large idol, which we build for the purpose of worship,” Santosh said.
He added that while the mandal had earlier considered having the idol installed and setting up darshan by video-link, the logistics of the visarjan journey – easily the most stressful 24 hours every year for the city police – made those plans impossible.
Mumbai has around 14,000 major Ganesh pandals with Lalbaug being the most famous. Some of the Ganesh mandals have 20 to 25 feet idols. However, in view of the pandemic, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had held meetings with the mandals, asking them to limit the size of the idols to four feet and not take out processions.
“The mandal could have prevented people from visiting the pandal but it would be impossible to stop people from joining the visarjan,” said Santosh.
The procession departs Lalbaug in the afternoon, winds its way slowly through across central and south Mumbai, before the idol is immersed into the sea at Girgaum Chowpatty early the next day in the presence of several lakh devotees and thousands of police personnel.
There is a consolation, however, for dismayed devotees. A small idol, which local residents worship, stays outside the site of the pandal throughout the year. “The idol actually never leaves Lalbaug,” said Gothoskar.
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