Think Tank

The History of P-O-P Ganesha Idols

The History of P-O-P Ganesha Idols

Ganesh Chaturthi

We all know the story of Parvati, Lord Shiva’s beloved wife, who made an idol of Ganesha in order to protect herself before she went for a bath. She made this idol using her natural bathing ingredients, which included clay. For hundreds of years now, we have been celebrating this occasion every year. But when and how did the clay idol become a P-O-P (plaster of paris) idol?

The festival of Ganesh Chaturthi gained a lot of prominence during the 1600s, thanks to the founder of the Maratha Empire, Chhatrapati Shivaji. The Peshwas, rulers of the Maratha empire, promoted the celebration of this festival publicly, which until then was just a private family affair. Ganesha was their family god and hence this was a way for them to promote their culture and legend. After the fall of the Maratha empire, Maharashtrians continued to celebrate the festival in their homes until the 1890s when Lokmanya Tilak re-introduced the festival to the public.

In the heat of the pre-Independence movement, Tilak realized that there was a huge gap between the Brahmins and the non-Brahmins and the best way to bridge this gap would be to use Lord Ganesha and his popular appeal as the god of everybody. Lokmanya Tilak was the first to install large public images of Ganesha in pavilions, and established the practise of submerging the idols in rivers, the sea or other bodies of water on the tenth day of the festival. (Source)

The festival had been equally popular in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and erstwhile Telangana, but remained a traditional family festival until Tilak popularized the public celebrations. Over the decades, the festival has become a popular religious event that is a mark of Indian culture and fervour. With its growing popularity, the festival is now a major economic event. It became a platform for many artists and sculptors as an opportunity to earn their bread and butter… It is some time during this rapid commercialization of the festival that the transition to plaster of paris happened.

Plaster of paris is cheap, easily available, which adds visual appeal to the idols. Idols made from POP have a better finish and are more stable. They can be painted using vibrant colours. Hence, POP idols caught on and became a rage.

But we already know everything that’s wrong with POP – it doesn’t dissolve in the water, it reduces the oxygen levels harming aquatic life and increases the acidity of the water. Added to this, the paints used on POP idols contain high amounts of lead and other harmful chemicals. POP idols are banned in the states of Tamil Nadu, Goa and Karnataka. But despite this, many people continue to use this harmful material.

A few years ago, the ‘Visarjan Bucket’ challenge went viral on social media and urged people to use smaller idols made from clay that can be immersed in a bucket of water. A Mumbai based NGO initiated a campaign called #GodSaveTheOcean that tried to promote idols made from vegetarian food ingredients that fish can consume. There have been a lot of such campaigns and initiatives to promote eco-friendly Ganeshas. Yet, POP still rules.

Now, we have only one simple thing to say. Remember the story of Parvati, Lord Shiva’s beloved wife, who made an idol of Ganesha in order to protect herself before she went to a bath? She made this idol using her natural bathing ingredients, which includes clay! Enough said.

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