Mumbai: Glittering decorations on roads and bylanes, rows of fairy lights, magnificent patriotic and social themes and an infectious religious fervour mark the start of the annual 11-day Ganeshotsav festival that begins here Friday.
Since the past couple of days, big and small idols of Lord Ganesh have started arriving in Mumbai, Pune, Kolhapur, Ratnagiri, Raigad and other cities and villages from studios across the coastal Konkan region amidst beating of drums, cymbals and merry dancing in trucks, tempos, cars, autos, two-wheelers or even carried on heads.
All along the various routes, devotees raised welcoming cries of 'Ganpati Bappa Morya', singing the lord's favourite bhajans and aartis punctuated by fireworks in Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra.
The festival is now in its 121st year.
"Tomorrow, after ensconcing the Ganesh idols in huge marquees erected by mandals, or in individual homes, the devotees shall perform the traditional 'sthapna puja' for Lord Ganesh, who is revered as the 'vignaharta' or destroyer of all evils," priest and astro-consultant Milan Thakar told IANS.
Mumbai's air is filled with the aroma of thousands of tonnes of Lord Ganesh's favourite sweet "modak" and "karanji" which are offered as the 'prasad' to devotees, after the daily three-time aartis.
"This is one festival where nobody is invited to homes or marquees, but everybody is heartily welcome, anytime. In big marquees like the famous Lalbaugcha Raja, Andhericha Raja, Ganesh Gully and other mandals, the darshan goes on round-the-clock," said Anant Joshi of Andheri.
The runaway inflation and inclement weather conditions have failed to dampen the growing enthusiasm for the festival, which was initiated on a modest scale by freedom fighter Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1893 to unite people during the British rule.
"This year (2014), there are 11,555 public Ganeshotsav mandals and around 205,000 domestic Ganpatis, an increase of roughly 20 percent over last year," the umbrella organisation' BrihanMumbai Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Samanvaya Samiti (BSGSS) president N. Dahibhavkar told IANS.
Due to persistent efforts at various levels, Dahibhavkar said that nearly one-third of all the Ganesh idols this year shall be eco-friendly, made of clay, instead of PoP, plastic or other non-biodegradable material.
An estimated 40,000 idols have been exported to various countries where Maharashtrian expats celebrate the festival, and around 10,000 to Gujarat, Delhi, Goa, Bangalore, Hyderabad.
With people from different communities enthusiastically taking part in the celebrations, Ganeshotsav is no longer confined to any particular community but has attained the status of a 'state festival', Dahibhavkar added.
As in the past, the various public marquees have topical themes highlighting the recent political changes, the threat of Ebola, saving the girl child, protesting against rape and crime, and inflation.
Besides Mumbai, some of the most opulent celebrations are witnessed in Pune, including the famous Dagdusheth Halwai Ganeshotsav, and the Konkan region, considered the bastion of the celebrations.
In the Konkan comprising Palghar, Thane, Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts, thousands of tiny villages and hamlets have a magical ambience with lights and music and round-the-clock festivities, though with modest budgets.
As in the past, the Mumbai Police will be on 24-hour duty with the support of other state security agencies, supplemented by the private security arrangements at various mandals, modern gadgets and dog squads, random checks and an army of over 200,000 volunteers, during the next 11 days, Dahibhavkar said.
At least 200 'mega-crowd' spots -- like the Lalbaugcha Raja where around 1.25 million devotees are expected round-the-clock -- and some others like the GSB Seva Mandal's 70-kg five-feet tall gold idol in Sion, Khetwadi 12th Lane, Ganesh Gully, Fort Vibhag, will remain on the radar of the security agencies.
Over the next few days, nearly 10 million people will pour on to Mumbai's roads for 'darshan', including lakhs of domestic and foreign tourists arriving to savour the flavour of the Ganeshotsav season.
This year, a vast majority of the big mandals have restricted the height of Ganesh idols to 18 feet, down from 32-feet in the past.
"Around a handful of them are still large, upto 25 feet or so, we shall try to convince them to adhere to the standard norms in overall public interest," Dahibhavkar explained.
Star power will also be at play during the Ganeshotsav with celebrations at the homes of Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Govinda, Jeetendra, Nana Patekar, the Kapoor clan of Shashi, Randhir and Rishi, Sachin Pilgaonkar, industrialists, politicians and other celebrities worshipping at home.
Many celebrities will also make 'guest appearances' at various marquees to enliven the celebrations.
And with a heavy heart, people will start bidding a tearful adieu to their beloved Lord Ganesh in phases from Saturday with colourful immersion rites at beaches, creeks, lakes, artificial ponds, wells and other venues