Reinterpreting festive traditions to protect our natural environment
The ritual of the immersion of religious idols is observed in various parts of India – from the Ganesh idols in Maharashtra to the Durga idols in West Bengal. The origin of this ritual is not specifically identified but scholars believe that it may have started as an offering of gratitude to the soil by agrarian communities. Worshipping the fertility of the soil on river banks, which nourished them, it is speculated that communities would bring home a handful of this soil, mould it into a form of a diety, worship it for a few days, offer prayers to it and then return it to the river. It was believed that the water carried these prayers and blessings of well being to the larger ecosystem and to communities down stream.
Today however, the immersion of idols is causing a far reaching impact on the environmental health of water bodies all over the country. This is not due to the ritual itself, but rather because what was a natural material earlier, which simply merged into the ecosystem, is now replaced with man made materials like Plaster of Paris and toxic chemical paints that do not biodegrade.
Environmental activists have been highlighting this problem for several years now and public interest litigations have been filed with courts in Gujarat, Allahabad, Hyderabad and West Bengal since as early as 2001.
Although well intentioned, the challenge posed by these litigations has the potential to hurt religious sentiment , create resistance to change and there has been an impasse on the issue for some time now, with state governments reluctant to pass more stringent laws around the matter.
This article attempts to summarise and study the main points on both sides of the debate by looking at the various PILs filed and compare their approaches.
The main questions to consider are as follows:
1. Are the materials used in the making of the idols truly ‘environmental pollutants?
2. What are the alternatives to these materials?
3. What is the solution to handle religious items after their ritual use is over?
4. Is there a way to respect religious sentiment whilst protecting our dwindling natural resources?
Are Plaster of Paris and chemical paints harmful to the environment?
In, Sureshbhai Keshavbhai … vs State Of Gujarat Ors on 9 May, 2013, filed under Section 14 and 16of the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010, a group of idol manufacturers and artisans challenged a government guideline prohibiting the making of idols with Plaster of Paris and chemical paints.
The first two guidelines mentioned in communication dated 23.01.2012 issued by the Forest and Environment Department of Gujarat vide communication dated 23.01.2012 are as follows:-
1. ” Idols should be made from natural materials as described in the holy scripts. Idols should be made of traditional clay and not from use of baked clay, plaster of paris.
2. Painting of idols may only be done from water soluble and nontoxic naturals dyes. Use of toxic and non-biodegradable chemical dyes for painting idols is strictly prohibited.”
According to the research done by Srishti Eco Research Institute (SERI ) based in Pune, while PoP does not dissolve in water it does not harm it either. However no detailed study seems to have been undertaken by the CPCB itself to determine to what extent PoP pollutes the water. As per the applicants, from prima facie studies, they observe that PoP increase the alkalinity of the water and may cause an impact when idols are immersed in large numbers.
This lack of in depth and reliable scientific research makes it difficult to say conclusively whether PoP can be considered a pollutant, according to the petitioners.
Studies taken up by Prof Asolekar, at IIT Mumbai do clearly show however, that chemical paints that contain mercury and lead are dangerous for aquatic life and should not be immersed into natural water bodies. He has also cautioned against the impact of large scale immersion of Plaster of Paris in natural water bodies and the build up of these at the bottom of the water bodies.
Alternatives to Plaster of Paris and chemical paints
Traditionally, natural clay was used by artisans to mould religious idols from. In some parts of South India even today families make their own idols with a little bit of earth and choose not to paint them.
The commercial use of unbaked clay for religious idols poses several problems for artisans as it is bulky, very fragile and absorbs moisture. The losses borne by those who continue this traditional art are high and therefore make the idols costlier than Plaster of Paris. Natural clay itself is a non renewable resource and extensive mining of this clay ( called Shaadu in Marathi ) from Gujarat and West Bengal is also bound to have an effect on those eco systems where it is sourced from.
The large community of sculptors and artisans that depend on the manufacture of religious idols has been resistant to the move to natural clay or materials like papier-mache because these are difficult to make and take a longer time to dry. Plaster of Paris on the contrary is easy to mould and quick to dry. As artisans find it more and more difficult to find labour, they are reluctant to give up the use of Plaster of Paris.
Smaller changes in materials, that are easier to implement, are coming about gradually. The High court in Hyderabad stipulated that only natural pigments should be used in the painting of the idols. Some Hindu communities have replaced the immersion of the idol with a symbolic idol – usually a betel nut along with a supari leaf. This substantially reduces both the volume of the object being immersed as well as ensures that it is made of a natural material.
Solutions for handling religious items after due ritual use is over
In the direction by the High Court of Allahabad, in response to a PIL filed to prevent pollution of the river Ganga the court instructed ‘that no immersion of idols shall take place in river Ganga or Yamuna. It is for the administration to identify the suitable places for immersion of idols other than the rivers.’
They also go on to identify a pond near the river Ganga that could be used instead. The effort here is to contain and therefore minimise the pollution caused. Lakes and ponds that don’t have flowing waters, are bound to experience a high rise in toxicity in the days after the immersion and often fish can be seen floating dead in these.
Authorities in the city of Pune have built special immersion tanks on the banks of the rivers and have been encouraging devotees to immerse their idols in these instead of the river. Over the years more and more people have accepted this change in tradition, although certain Hindu groups believe that unless the immersion is done in flowing waters, the ritual will not be complete.
Even if devotees completely shifted the immersion to the tanks, the government still does not have a solution to what can be done to them after they are immersed. The tanks have a limited capacity and as the festivities last for ten days the tanks have to be emptied. With no systematic plan of disposal, authorities pick up the idols and simply throw them away in areas outside the cities, leading to the ire of the community.
Often the waters of the tanks are then drained out into the river itself without treatment, negating the point of using the immersion tank in the first place.
Certain youth groups proposed the idea of recycling the PoP idols, donating them after the ritual was over, so they may be reused once again the following year. This was not acceptable to some religious groups and the effort had to be discontinued. Prof Asolekar suggested that the PoP idols be converted into powders that can be used in construction of tiles etc. In 2016 the NCL laboratory suggested a process whereby the PoP may be dissolved using sodium bicarbonate to convert the sludge later into chalks and fertilizer. However the systematic collection of sludge has yet to be put into place, for this process to be effective.
The religious value of idols after immersion
In the city of Mumbai, for decades Ganesh idols are immersed in the sea. The day after the immersion is done broken pieces of these idols wash up on the shores of the ocean and are walked over and trampled upon by people. Hindu groups have taken offense at this and some believe that even after the immersion, the idol is still sacred.
In principle, once an idol has been immersed and returned to the earth it is to be left to merge with the elements again. However the use of non biodegradable materials such as PoP creates a problem as the idols do not dissolve immediately and float back to the shore the next day. Materials like clay and paper immediately dissolve into water and therefore would avoid such a predicament.
Respecting Religious sentiment
In the High court order in West Bengal the issue was a cutoff timeline set by the government on immersion of idols – this debate was focussed on the fact that the next day was Muharram and therefore the immersion of idols should be completed before the next festival began. It was more about religious sentiment than environmental impact.
Any kind of regulation imposed by the government or the courts is going to have to delicately handle the religious belief system in which the ritual of immersion originates. Many groups have also pointed out that relatively speaking the pollution caused to the rivers and lakes due to domestic sewage and industrial effluent is much higher in proportion than that caused by the immersion of idols. They feel targeted by any regulation and as the matter is so sensitive, governments routinely delay its resolution.
Coming together to conserve our natural resources
The water situation is finally the core issue that both sides of the debate have to seriously consider. To what degree are we willing to jeopardise our water resources, by any kind of pollution, industrial or religious?
In Pune city, although immersion tanks are becoming more and more acceptable, their management poses a concern. In years when water is plentiful, often the tanks which are very close to the banks of the rivers, get submerged by flowing waters. In one case, the government issued a directive to devotees to go ahead and immerse their idols in the river as there was enough water available. They cited the building of tanks merely as a convenience for devotees and were not too concerned about the impact on the river. In recent years, as water gets rationed during summer months, it becomes evident to all parties that it is important to protect our water.
Sri BalGangadhar Tilak, who used the Ganesh festival as a means to strengthen our national and cultural identity, unified our society through it. Many nature loving Ganesh devotees are now taking ownership for the social and environmental health of our community and natural resources through the festival and this augurs well for the future. Ultimately, if Nature, the rivers and the earth are seen to be as sacred as the idols we worship, we would all protect them as our own.
Some of the PILs filed in different parts of the country :
Court of law
Year of application
Andhra Pradesh High Court
ordered the State Government not to allow immersion of Ganesh idols in the Hussain Sagar lake of Hyderabad
Smt. Abhilasha Gupta Nandi
prevention of pollution in river Ganga
Janhit Manch, Bhagwanji Raiyani.
measures to control water pollution following immersion of lakhs of Ganpati and Durga idols in the sea and other water bodies of the city
HC asked CPCB to frame guidelines
Salek Chand Jain
seeking ban of idol immersion during festivals like Durga Puja and Dussehra
prevent people from immersing idols in water bodies during religious festivities so as to avoid water pollution.
Rejected by HC
Salem judicial court
V. Piyush Sethia, Salem Citizens’ Forum
petition, which claimed that he ‘surrendered,’ since, as a responsible member of Salem Citizens’ Forum, he had failed to keep his promise given to stakeholders at the time of rejuvenation that the lake would not be ‘abused’ for purpose other than water holding and ayacut use.
dismissed the petition itself pointing out that it had enclosed no supportive documents such as FIR or any specific complaint filed against the petitioner in this regard,
no idol would be immersed in the river Ganga and Yamuna
National Green Tribunal
Adarsh Muni Trivedi
alleged violation of certain environmental laws in regard to a site which was designated by the respondents for the purpose of immersion of idols and located in close vicinity of river Narmada in Village Bhatoli near Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.
National Green Tribunal
Sureshbhai Keshavbhai Waghvankar & Ors.
immersion of plaster of paris made idols
Madras High Court
asked the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board to file a memo by Thursday, detailing the places it has chosen or identified in districts for the immersion of Vinayaka idols
providing of proper facilities like boats, tarafas to immerse Ganesh idols into the deep sea.
extend the deadline set by the police for immersion of household idols