Every year, in the month of September, a festive madness in the name of a rotund, elephant-headed God descends upon the state of Maharashtra. While the Ganpati festival celebrations are held in several parts of India, nobody honors the Hindu God Ganesh with quite the same fervor as Maharashtrians. For ten days, public celebrations are held in every street. Local communities set up Ganesh mandals, each trying to outdo the other in their splendor. On the final day of Visarjan, idols of the deity are submerged in water, accompanied by dance, loud music and much fanfare.
But it wasn’t always like this. The Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations have an interesting history in Maharashtra. Religious festivals are never entirely divorced from the local socio-political context, and as contexts changed over the years, so did the festival. It has been celebrated in Pune since the 17th century, when Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, the founder of Maratha Empire was the ruler. Lord Ganesh was the kuldevata (clan God) of the Peshwas, the coterie of powerful Brahmin ministers who effectively administered the Maratha regime during its latter days. Ganesh Chaturthi thus received political and public patronage, and was a state event, especially in Pune. However, after the decline of the Marathas, the festival lost its prominence and became a private affair, celebrated in the homes of a few wealthy families.
It was only in the 1890s, in the background of the national movement, that the festival was revived as the public affair it had once been. ‘Lokamanya’ Bal Gangadhar Tilak, one of the leaders of the independence movement, saw in its revival the potential to build national unity and patriotic fervor among Indians. At a time when the British had disallowed public political assemblies, the festival became a platform to broadcast nationalist messages to a large audience. The festive chaos also fostered interaction across castes and communities, a relatively rare phenomenon in colonial India. Even today, the festival is not untouched by its immediate political context. Ganesh mandals in cities like Mumbai are often supported by funds from local members of political parties, who, in turn, acquire a large audience, also known as their vote banks.
The Ganpati celebrations in Mhaswad, a small town in Maharashtra, are an interesting blend of both private and public celebratory traditions. While every home has a small idol of Ganesh, in honor of whom they organize aartis (prayers) every evening, almost every locality also has a mandal, where people gather to celebrate together. These mandals are organised by committees set up by the localities and villages, who serve prasad to everyone who attends. Many mandal organizing committees have members belonging to different marathi castes and communities, with one in particular, the Golden Ganesh Mandal in Mhaswad, having members from both Muslim and Jain religious communities. 
The celebrations at home are no less vigorous. Many people observe fasts on specific days, and feast on the others! Modaks (a sweetmeat with a rice-flour shell and coconut stuffing) and puranpolis (chapatis stuffed with dal and jaggery) are also made in every household. Three days after the Ganpati celebrations begin, the preparations for Gauri puja start. Two idols of Gauri, believed in Mhaswad to be Ganesh’s two wives, Riddhi and Siddhi, who have come in search of him, are decorated and offered a range of delicacies such as modaks, karanjis, puranpolis, and fruits. Many of my colleagues in the office looked forward to decorating the Gauri idols with great enthusiasm and worked hard on it until late night, despite having to come to office the next day. Gauri puja traditionally continues for three days, after which Gauri Visarjan takes place and the idol is submerged. However, in a drought prone region such as Mhaswad, the idols are kept away safely to be used next year.
But the most fascinating part of the Ganpati celebrations was, for me, the processions that were taken out into the streets. Men and women brightly dressed in orange, bearing heavy drums, took to the roads with an abandon I have rarely seen. Their energetic drumbeats and cries of ‘Ganpati Bappa Morya’ reverberated through Mhaswad. It was especially heartening for me to see the women carry their heavy drums with so much élan and energy. It was evident that they were thoroughly enjoying the rare privilege of exercising complete bodily freedom in public; something that women (men too, in some cases) are rarely able to do, be it in small towns, villages or cities. Their joy was infectious, and I soon found myself chanting along to their cries, gripped by an excitement that felt almost tangible in the air.
As the processions snaked their way through the town, and the evening aartis started in individual homes, I began to finally realize why this festival held so much meaning for the people of Mhaswad. After all, festivals offer periodic release for societies; they represent moments when social norms are relaxed and societal boundaries become somewhat porous. This relative freedom was manifested in Mhaswad in the free spirited women drummers and the inter-religious participation during celebrations. Today, in cities like Mumbai, various political and religious entities occasionally try to hijack the festival for their own purposes, and often succeed in giving it a distinctly communal orientation. In recent years, the Ganpati celebrations have presented opportunities for the rise of some of the worst forms of belligerent majoritarianism, polarizing people from marginalized communities who do not participate in the celebrations.
Somehow, the festival in Mhaswad seemed far from those realities. Here, it was a cultural, not a religious occasion; an event that brought a new excitement to this dry and dusty town. It might have meant different things for different people; for some it was about observing fasts and abstaining from non-vegetarian food and alcohol. For others, it meant song and dance, modaks, and a holiday or two from school/work. However, underneath it all, I felt that the festival gave people a sense that they were a part of something bigger than themselves. It reaffirmed their sense of belonging to their place, locality, or community, and brought them closer to family and friends. For outsiders like me, it gave a glimpse into one of the most cherished aspects of life in Mhaswad: its festivals.
 The story of this interesting Mandal was unearthed by Nitesh Savita, IUIF Fellow at the Mann Deshi Tarang Vahini (Community Radio). The link to his blog on this topic will be updated as soon as it is published.
Note: For this blog, I am grateful to my colleagues at Mann Deshi. Much of this information has been gleaned from conversations with them and visits to their houses.