School students to serve as priests at Ganesh festival

August 1st, 2011 - 11:49 am ICT by IANS  

Mumbai, Aug 1 (IANS) An umbrella organization of Ganeshotsav mandals in Mumbai has launched a unique project to train young girls and boys to officiate in rituals during the forthcoming 10-day Ganesh Chaturthi festival, given the shortage of trained priests.

As the Ganesh Chaturthi approaches, priests are suddenly in great demand but in dire short supply in Mumbai and other parts of the state.

This year there will be nearly 250,000 big and small idols of the elephant-headed God which shall be worshipped in the city during the annual calendar’s most important festival, starting Sep 1.

For so many Ganesh idols - which are installed by huge Ganeshotsav mandals (recognized or registered organizations), housing societies, “gali” (lane) groups and families - there are barely 3,000 recognised priests or (”brahmans” as they are reverently called), to perform the auspicious first puja, known as “Pran Pratisthan Puja”.

“Needless to mention, the priests are practically booked from the previous year and they also charge heavily. While the big Ganeshotsav mandals have their own fulltime panel of priests, it is the smaller mandals or gully groups, families and poor people who have nobody to perform the crucial first puja,” Naresh Dahibhavkar, president of the Brihanmumbai Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Samavaya Samiti (BSGSS), told IANS.

For those who cannot afford to hire the services of a regular “brahman”, they themselves perform the puja, reading from the scriptures or listening to audio-video CDs of the nearly two-hour-long puja rituals.

In order to tackle this serious crisis, Dahibhavkar, under the auspices of the BSGSS, last week initiated a project to train around a 1,000 young “brahmans”.

“They are essentially school children, aged between 13 and 15 years, and nearly 75 percent of them are young girls. They belong to different castes and we have started training them at the BSGSS office in Kalachowki (south Mumbai),” he said.

He said that they passed the word around in local schools and were overwhelmed by 380 volunteers, including 275 girls, in the very first batch.

“Many Marathi-speaking students generally opt for Sanskrit as an optional subject in the higher secondary classes - 8 to 10. The only requirement to join the course is a basic knowledge of Sanskrit which is a requisite for the puja ritual,” Dahibhavkar said.

He said that the BSGSS has planned to train around 750 young “brahmans” who will fan out wherever they are required and perform the first puja, also known as “sthapan puja”.

Lauding the move, leading jeweller Shrikrishna Verlekar said that it is a major problem getting a priest for the “sthapan puja”.

“Normally, the puja takes around two hours, but since the priests are in perpetual hurry, they finish it in less than 45 minutes, before rushing off to the next venue,” Verlekar, who has a jewellery showroom in Borivli told IANS.

On an average, Verlekar said that a priest visits over a dozen venues on the very first day, performing sthapan puja between sunrise and sunset, since there is no specific “muhurat” (auspicious time) for the first puja.

As far as the new tribe of “student priests” is concerned, the BSGSS has strictly discouraged them from making it a commercial venture.

“We have clearly instructed the children not to expect or demand any fees for performing the puja but humbly accept whatever the clients give of their free will,” Dahibhavkar said.

Explaining the logic behind the move, Dahibhavkar said that now, Ganesha has achieved universal popularity and is no longer restricted to any particular community.

“In Mumbai alone, there are Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs, Gujaratis, south Indians, Bengalis, Punjabis, Biharis, Rajasthanis and others who bring Ganpati idols to their homes and perform the puja with full rituals. For these young children, it will be a rich experience to go and perform the puja and the blessings they get will help them later in life,” he said.

According to Dahibhavkar, the BSGSS hopes to erase the nearly 70 percent shortfall in the supply of priests within a couple of years by conducting more such courses during the year to train young ‘brahmans.’

The BSGSS has also written to Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, seeking help from the chief minister’s relief fund or the legislators’ fund, for installing permanent security measures at the coming Ganeshotsav in Mumbai.

“While the handful of big mandals can afford the high-security requirements, it is impossible for the smaller mandals and gully groups to install security gadgets. We have urged the chief minister to do something so that the mandals can have a permanent security set-up,” he said.

He said that this year, in view of the 13/7 terror blasts in south Mumbai, the city police are contemplating compulsory CCTVs at all public Ganeshotsavs - around 12,000 - in the city.

Besides the CCTVs, there would be metal detectors, both doorframe and hand-held types and other measures as per the local requirements of each mandal.

(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at q.najmi@ians.in)

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