Ashling O'Connor, New Delhi, August 26, 2006
MILLIONS of devotees of Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, are being urged to use clay instead of toxic plastics to make their idols for this year's Ganesh Chaturthi.
During the annual Hindu festival, celebrated across India from tomorrow to mark Lord Ganesh's birthday, thousands of replica statues – some measuring 7.6m – are immersed in the sea, lakes and rivers after daily prayers at temples and colourful processions through the streets.
Environmentalists say the plaster of Paris that in recent years has replaced the natural mud traditionally used is causing serious water pollution. Beaches and lake shores are littered with debris for weeks, while chemical paints leach into the drinking water and kill many fish.
The Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group has started a "safe festivals" campaign to encourage worshippers to revert to unbaked clay, which dissolves in water, and paint their idols with natural colours such as turmeric and red earth instead of chemical dyes. Failing that, people are being urged to conduct a "symbolic immersion" or dunk the deity in a bucket of water and recycle their plastic idols for next year.
"Traditionally, simple idols were made of earth and returned to the earth, but over the years the craft of idol-making has reached a big scale," said campaigner Manisha Gutman. "One wants to keep the craft alive but we have to think of nature."
But the message is not getting through. Idols sculpted from heavier and more expensive natural clay are rare outside artisan communities. Most are mass-produced from moulds to keep up with the demand.