Sumitra Chandan, 23, was unaware of the jostling crowds around her. Her husband held the flowers they had brought to offer the deity while she clasped her palms, closed her eyes and began a private conversation with Lord Ganesh — seeming to alternately cajole and coax Him — to end their woes.
The couple has been married for six years and they want a child. She looks child-like herself, but says that if the baby does not come soon, her mother-in-law will have the marriage annulled and get her son married to someone who is not “barren”.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
But today, Chandan does not get much time to pray. “Don’t take all day,” barks a uniformed and rifle-toting police officer. “Hurry up, don’t sit here all day,” he yells, waving his arm at the crowd around Chandan.
Access to the 200-year-old Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai wasn’t always so restricted.
They say, good men turn to God in times of grief. Also, in times of good marketing.
About five years ago, the trustees of Siddhivinayak began executing a marketing strategy that would transform Mumbai’s most famous temple into India’s most important Ganesh temple. “We made a deliberate decision to take the Siddhivinayak Ganapati to as many people as we could,” says Subhash Mayekar, a member of the temple trust.
The need to modernize and popularize Siddhivinayak began to be felt in the late 1990s when celebrities — the Bachchan family, India’s bahu Smriti Irani and cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, among many others — began visiting, sometimes barefoot, to pay homage to the “god of new beginnings” before a movie launch, an important cricket series or at the start of new relationships. The visits gave much fodder to tabloids that speculated on the glitzy devotees’ motives for visiting the shrine. Mumbaiites, of course, emulated the stars. So, while 5,000 visitors were blessed daily by the elephant-headed god in 2002, at present, between 30,000 and 200,000 worshippers are receiving blessings every day.
About three years ago, the temple’s website started offering a darshan of the deity. Thanks to the Internet, devotees in far-flung corners could see the idol on their desktops whenever they liked. For non-resident Indians such as 66-year-old Bharati Joshi, it was a godsend. Joshi, who lives in a townhouse in a New York suburb, now began her days with an online darshan of the god she had loved and revered while growing up in Mumbai. Her friends from back home were hooked, too.
The website soon developed into a financially lucrative exercise when it began to accept credit card payments for online pooja bookings. The devotees pay with a credit card and receive a receipt and prasad in return from the temple. Every day, 30 to 40 employees and devotees sit barefoot in a room at the temple complex and pack holy ash, satchets of coconut shavings, about 15,000 boondi laddus and 120kg coconut barfi into little plastic bags bearing the image of the temple. Some of these are airmailed to devotees in more than 15 countries as a return gift from the temple for booking poojas online.
“When you get the prasad, it makes you believe that your prayer has reached the destination,” says Rachana Somaiya, a London-based engineer who is unfailingly devoted to the temple. “I was so pleasantly surprised to get the prasad.” She carries the holy ash in her wallet.
But not all devotees are Internet savvy, says Mayekar. For them, their TV screens are their window to god. “We have taken Siddhivinyak to their televisions now. People with a Tata Sky connection can see the idol from their homes. We have installed a camera that is always on inside the temple.”
From the small-screen to the big is a natural progression. Later this year, Siddhivinayak will debut as the star of a Hindi film, The Miracles of Siddhivinayak that is being shot inside the temple and on locations near Mumbai. The 3-hour family drama revolving around the temple, features Parmeet Sethi and Divya Dutta in lead roles and the who’s who list of devotees in guest roles — Tendulkar and actor couple Ajay Devgan and Kajol, among others. The music is by Suresh Wadkar and Shankar Mahadevan. The film is expected to release worldwide around Diwali.
The Miracles of Siddhivinayak, says producer Rajiv Singhvi, has no budget because money is not important in this venture. “What’s important is the social message of this film. It begins with an animation that shows a baby Ganapati circling his mother and father when they ask him to go around the world. The message is clear: Make your parents the centre of your world. Don’t leave them in old age homes and come to the temple expecting this god to be pleased with you,” says Singhvi.
Alongside the hype and popularity, the Siddhivinayak temple has had its share of peril. The authorities say that in the past decade, there have been bomb threats and “the real possibility of terrorists going on a rampage inside the temple or ramming a truck filled with explosives through its walls”.
“So, we were advised by the police to build a wall. We installed closed-circuit televisions all around the temple, set up one entrance manned by armed security personnel, metal detectors and X-ray machines,” says Mayekar, explaining why the temple now resembles a hi-tech fortress.
But the change has come under attack — hassled commuters and local residents feel torn between devotion to the deity and disapproval of the encroachers. But Mayekar says: “We need these security systems. We need the police and the undercover protection as well.”
It is ironical that devotees have to clear so many hurdles to visit a god famed as the “remover of obstacles”, but few seem to mind. The interminable queues of devotees at the gate are proof enough.