It was amazing to me that students from different religions, from different parts of India- Hindu, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs- as well as NRI’s and Foreign Nationals, were dancing and singing together as we followed the Ganpati idol down the streets of Mangalore. Local residents and college volunteers offered us water and Prasad at regular intervals.
My first memory of Ganesh Chaturthi is from my first year of college in Mangalore. I studied dentistry in Manipal College of Dental Sciences (MCODS), Mangalore from 2007-2012. The academic year begins in August every year and the first and biggest celebration comes soon after, in the form of Ganesh Chaturthi festival that the college celebrates in conjunction with the medical college, KMC(Kasturba Medical College, Manipal University). Every year since 1954 (KMC was established in 1953) 3-600 college students under the Mangalore branch of Manipal University come together in a grandVisarjan procession spanning 3 kilometres from the Main Campus to the Lake atKudtheri Shree Mahamaya Temple in Carstreet, Mangalore.
Since the first-year students have a separate campus, it is their first interaction with their seniors and teachers in an informal setting. I remember being apprehensive and excited at the same time, boarding the bus to attend the Ganpati Aarti and Visarjan. As a Sikh girl from Punjab, this was the first time I had heard of Ganesh Chaturthi. I arrived at the opulent pandal set up in the main KMC campus on LightHouse Hill road to witness the grandeur of the Rangoli art, the spiritually uplifting Aarti ceremony, and then the laughter and cheers that erupted as the dhol started playing.
It was amazing to me that students from different religions, from different parts of India- Hindu, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs- as well as NRI’s and Foreign Nationals, were dancing and singing together as we followed the Ganpati idol down the streets of Mangalore. Local residents and college volunteers offered us water and Prasad at regular intervals. Meanwhile, as opposed to what I had heard about ragging in colleges, senior students at Mangalore were doing their best to make us juniors feel safe and included. They came and danced with us, asked us repeatedly if we were all okay, offered refreshments, and even took time to explain the significance of the festival to foreign students and students who belonged to other religions like me. I remember a post graduate student taking the time to tell me, “Ganesh Chaturthi is the great unifier. Here you are not bound by caste, economic status, or religion. You are here to celebrate with everyone as equals.”
It was Lokmanya Tilak who had popularized the celebration of Ganesh Chaturthi as a grand public celebration “to bridge the gap between Brahmins and non-Brahmins, and find an appropriate context in which to build a new grassroots unity between them.”
Mangalore taught me my first lessons in diversity. My fellow students spoke languages I didn’t understand, had cultural and religious practices that were completely unknown to me, and yet, all of us found common ground. Whether we were pulling all-nighters for exams in the TV Room, or putting together dance performances for the cultural week, our differences were what made us grow as people. We learnt not just tolerance, but acceptance.
From what the current student coordinators Ojasvi Praveen (Cultural Secretary, KMC) and Gulmehak Kalsi (Fine Arts Secretary, MCODS) told me, the tradition has continued in the same spirit, “We are expecting more than 400 students and teachers to walk in the Visarjan procession this year. Students from all religions and nationalities are not only attending but also part of the organization process.”
Gulmehak, who is herself a Sikh, further added, “Ganesh Chaturthi celebration is not seen as a religious event, but rather a celebration of unity and people from all religions and cultures are welcome. Everyone takes part in the celebrations with great fervour each year.”
As I ponder on my own memories of the celebration from my 5 years in Mangalore, what I cherish most is the part when after the Visarjan, we would sit on the Temple steps tired out yet full of energy. We would listen carefully while the Dean made a speech and await with much suspense whether a holiday would be announced for the next day (it always was). Then we would pile into our college buses late at night and sing all the way back to the hostels, clapping and chanting “Ganpati Bappa Morya!”.
To have that experience of being part of a community, being close to people you would have never met in your hometowns, sharing happiness and joy, that was what made Mangalore special to me. I will always think of the city as home, because it embraces everyone regardless of who you are or where you come from. I hope this tradition that completes 65 years this year in KMC and MCODS Mangalore, will continue for many more years to come, and give lakhs of young people hope that there is always a place they are accepted.