Ganesha Chaturthi is a Hindu festival celebrated in the honour of Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles and the God of beginnings and wisdom. The festival lasts for 10 days, ending on Anant Chaturdashi (fourteenth day of the waxing moon period).
The festival involves installing clay or plaster of Paris images of the elephant-headed god in public pandals (temporary shrines), which are worshipped for ten days and immersed in a water body at the end of the festival. Some devotees also install the clay images of Ganesha in their homes. It is believed that Ganesha bestows his presence on earth for all his devotees during this festival.
Weeks or even months before Ganesh Chaturthi, artistic clay models of Lord Ganesha are made for sale by specially skilled artisans. They are beautifully decorated and depict Lord Ganesh in vivid poses. Traditionally, the idol was sculpted out of mud taken from nearby one’s home. After the festival, it was returned to the Earth by immersing it into a water body in the vicinity. This cycle symbolised the cycle of creation and dissolution in Nature.
However, as the production of Ganesh idols on a commercial basis grew, the earthen or natural clay was replaced by Plaster of Paris, which is easier to mould, lighter and less expensive than clay. However, plaster is non-biodegradable, and insoluble in water. Moreover, the chemical paints used to adorn these plaster idols contain heavy metals like mercury and cadmium, causing water pollution. Also, on immersion, non-biodegradable accessories that originally adorned the idol accumulate in the surrounding areas of the water body.
Recently there have been new initiatives sponsored by some state governments to produce clay Ganesha idols to address this issue. To handle religious sentiments sensitively, some temples and spiritual groups have taken up the cause too.