Annual Hindu festival builds to large, closing weekend

Clearly, organizers of the 12th Annual Columbus Ganesh Festival know how to build bridges to common ground.

They understand that many area residents would say they know little or nothing of such a week-long Hindu and history India-oriented celebration — one that draws as many as 800 to 1,000 people to The Commons on its biggest, closing weekend, unfolding Saturday and Sunday.

But take a look at the main backdrop for Omkar 2016: a three-dimensional scene straight out of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” There was Mowgli, the young boy and central character, his friend Baloo the bear, Shere Khan the tiger and a snake named Kaa.

Perhaps the only tweak to the depiction included a small, colorful statue of a smiling Lord Ganesh, the beloved elephant-headed Hindu god of prosperity and prudence. Omkar is another name for Ganesh, sometimes spelled as Ganesha.

“This is an appeal to the kids,” said Sakshi Jain, the festival’s publicity coordinator of the decorations. “And it’s an appeal to the kid inside you.”

Jain pointed out that “The Jungle Book” cartoon show has been a popular Sunday staple of Indian TV for a few decades, partly because Kipling was a native of India. Members of the festival decoration committee know the franchise has been equally popular with American youngsters for years.

Plus, the scene illustrated as well as anything that the festival seamlessly blends creed and culture, given the fact that “The Jungle Book” includes spiritual symbolism for many from India. Jain pointed out that the snake, for instance, can represent enticement.

More than 1,500 people from India live in Columbus, according to organizers. Many of the Columbus residents are also members of the Hindu Society of Southern Indiana or the Indian Association of Columbus.

A gathering earlier this week began with puja, or prayer spoken in Sanskrit. Then came worship songs in honor of Ganesh.

Festival President Amol Shende mentioned that the recorded music, heavy with drums, cymbals, flutes, soft strings and flowing vocals, always sets the stage. The atmosphere strongly resembles the scene at nearly any area house of worship, with some people closing their eyes, bowing their head slightly and folding their hands formally in graceful piety.

One woman knelt and bowed her head all the way to the floor for a moment.

“The music helps build the mood and helps build the devotional environment,” said Shende, who will be a drummer during Sunday’s joyous musical procession from The Commons to Mill Race Park. “And I think the aarati, the worship of the god, is an experience that everybody cherishes because it involves everyone singing together.”

The element of unity surfaced repeatedly in conversations with attendees. In a world in which many Americans have been taught that India’s caste system cements division, most of the more than 200 attendees this night were younger than 40, with plenty of preschool-age children.

They insisted that the forward-thinking younger generation of today fights many forms of division in its native land.

The unity emphasis is understandable, given the event’s background. Ganesh festivals began in the 1890s when India was a British colony. While England squelched political expression, it allowed Hindus to celebrate their religious beliefs openly, and they used those gatherings to unite people from various backgrounds and beliefs.

As Hindus migrated elsewhere, they took their celebration with them. In India, most celebrations have become grand events stretching for 10 days.

Bhagyashri Bhagwat, who just moved to Columbus in March, looks forward to Saturday’s cultural presentation in which she will perform classical Indian dance.

“I just love all the Indian programs,” she said.

Subodh Kulkarni prizes the togetherness.

“The most meaningful part for me is that all the people, of any caste or creed, come together and just enjoy the festival, irrespective of whether they’re a kid or an elderly person,” Kulkarni said.

Mugdha Soman never dreamed that Columbus hosted such a gathering when she moved to the city six years ago. She has spent recent days happily texting Ganesh Festival photos back and forth to her mom attending celebrations in India.

“This was a great surprise,” Soman said. “And all this makes us feel much closer to home.”

Upcoming Ganesh Festival highlights

Admission to the 12th annual Ganesha Festival is free and open to all at The Commons, 300 Washington St. in Columbus.

TODAY

  • 6 to 7:30 p.m.: Devotional music program.
  • 7:30 to 9 p.m.: Puja (prayer), aarati (worship) and prasad (food such as fruits offered to Ganesh, and then enjoyed by participants).

SATURDAY

  • 5 to 7 p.m.: Cultural program normally featuring music and dance.

SUNDAY

  • 2 to 3:30 p.m.: Children’s cultural program.
  • 3:30 p.m.: Colorful procession from The Commons to Mill Race Park.

Information: columbusganesh.com.

Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.