Dancing with Ganesh | Backstory

Ganesh Chaturthi is one of Trinidad’s least known but most fascinating festivals. Sharda Patasar reports on its origins, significance, and growth from humble observances in south Trinidad into a festival celebrated by Hindu communities across the island

  • Milk, signifying consciousness, is offered to Lord Ganesha on the final day of Ganesh Utsav. Photo by Nyla Singh Photography
  • Flowers, rice, coconut, jaggery, coins, and 108 “ladoo” sweets (considered his favourite) are offered to Lord Ganesha by devotees at Manzanilla Beach on the final day of Ganesh Utsav. Photo by Nyla Singh Photography
  • On the final day, known as the visarjan (immersion), the Ganesha depictions are immersed in a river, sea or body of water. Photo by Sharda Patasar

Ganesh! Elephant-headed. Keeper of thresholds. Remover of obstacles. Quick-witted. Patron of the arts and sciences. Born from the sandal paste of his mother Parvati’s body — or, in other stories, from the dirt of her body mixed with the local soil, or simply of clay. Whichever form these stories take, Ganesh remains closely linked to soil and water — a divinity born of elements that now define the festival.

Although Hindus in Trinidad have always observed Ganesh Chaturthi, the transformation of the observance into a full-fledged festival — with a public procession and the immersion (visarjan) ceremony at a water source — is relatively new to the wider Hindu community in Trinidad.

For over a century, the festival practices have been a part of the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations within select communities in south Trinidad. And in areas of north, central, and east Trinidad, the public procession and visarjan has only been practised since the 1990s.

My curiosity about this observance-turned-festival naturally led me to the Suchit Trace Temple in Penal, where I’m told it all started.

Ganesh Utsav is the term used to describe the festivities associated with the Ganesh Chaturthi observances, which are all dedicated to Ganesh — the elephant-headed god. And, according to oral accounts, a famine in the early 1900s led to the first observances of Ganesh Utsav at Suchit Trace.

One of the holy men of the village advised that a Ganesh yagya (an event defined by ritual and feasting) and submergence of the murti (the idol or image of the deity) were necessary to end the famine. And so it came to be known as a farmer’s festival.

The evolution of Ganesh Utsav in Trinidad, however, is a sociopolitical one. Traces like Ramai and Suchit were part of a cluster of little streets in the Penal/Debe area. In a period before the inception of the Sanathan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) in the 1930s, these communities united to host their celebrations. Eventually, they separated, and some chose to integrate themselves under organisations like the SDMS (the largest Hindu organisation in the country). Others, like the Suchit Trace Ganesh Mandir, remained community-based temples.

A combination of disagreements among Hindu leaders about the visarjan ceremony and possibly wider socio-political factors accounted for an approximately 70-year interval before public celebrations of the festival began in other parts of Trinidad.

But the festival continued, with the visarjan mainly taking place in these southern Trinidad temples. And this year, the Suchit Trace Mandir celebrates 180 years of the Ganesh Utsav.

Part of what makes the history of the festival here so alluring is that it is considered a shared sacred space. Suchit Trace is a low-lying area, with the exception of the hill on which the original temple was built. It was once called Puzzle Island — a name given by colonial officers who had to make their way through a maze of mangroves and river water.

The community elders told of people who had occupied the land before the East Indians. They were described as “strange people [who] would come by boat for a few months, and then leave by boat”.

No-one was able to ascertain the origins of these strangers — supposedly Venezuelan or Indigenous tribes coming to the hill as a place of worship. So, in the imagination of the East Indians who settled there in the early 20th century, because of the Indigenous tribes’ use of the hill and the land, the space was revered as sacred ground.

The festival itself begins on the fourth day of the first fortnight of the month of Bhadrapad (around August or September), and usually lasts 10 days. On the 11th day (Anant Chaturdashi), the Ganesh murti made for the festival is taken in a public procession to a natural water source (usually a river or the sea), and immersed.

The crafting of the murti, made exclusively from biodegradable materials — a core feature of Hindu ritual practice — is one of the main traditions of the festival. The ritual dirt-digging, referred to as matkor, takes place at the confluence of three river trails — the Dodge, Bhagmania (as it is locally named), and the Cut Channel in Suchit Trace. This area is also regarded as sacred, and likened to India’s Prayag in Allahabad where the rivers Ganga, Jamuna, and Saraswati meet.

In the imagination of the East Indians who settled there in the early 20th century, because of the Indigenous tribes’ use of the hill and the land, the space was revered as sacred ground

Sadly, over the years, the natural water courses in which the Ganesh visarjan took place in Suchit Trace have been polluted by human activity, driving the villagers to construct a man-made pond specifically for the festival.

The Dodge River contains the ideal sticky dirt for murti-making; it’s known locally as sapatey (also sapatay). As a dirt that does not crack easily, it ensures that the murti will be well preserved for the 10-day festival.

The bank of the river is transformed into a ritual space during the dirt-digging ceremony. A hole is dug in the earth to create the ceremonial fire pit, and the ceremonial altar is marked by drawing the shape of a box in the mud.

A century-old tradition of celibate boys diving and digging the dirt from the riverbed is the final ritual here. Two modern twists have been adopted at Suchit Trace, however. The crafting of the murti remains a male affair, but now sometimes women are allowed to witness it — a strong nod to inclusion. A procession of cars, with horns blaring, announces the arrival of the dirt to the temple, which marks the beginning of the festivities.

The concept of darshan, or seeing, is important in Hinduism, for the eyes are the medium through which blessings are bestowed on the devotee. The eyes are also believed to have destructive power, which must be first appeased by prayer. In keeping with this, the completed murti is blindfolded, then awaits the opening night of the yagya.

For 10 days and nights, the temple is open to the community, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to devotees and well-wishers. Here, I had my first doubles made of urad dal (a rarity in Trinidad), served with a tamarind chutney.

The final night of the festival is an all-night vigil of singing and dancing, with visarjan taking place before dawn. In the darkness of morning, devotees make their way through the village to the man-made pond. As day breaks, on the last steps towards the water, the final prayer is made, marking an emotional farewell.

“Ganapati Bappa!” someone shouts. An echo of voices follows with variations of “Jai Ganesha!” as the murti is gently lowered into the water — its ceremonial return home. As it’s submerged, the crowd stands in silent observance.

They will wait another moon cycle until Ganesha’s return.

Ganesh Chaturthi will be celebrated 18–28 September, 2023.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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