Not just in India, but other Asian countries as well, Ganesh Chaturthi is observed on a grand scale. We narrow down on the splendid GSB Seva Mandal in King’s Circle to give you an exclusive inside look into the food and festivities laid out

‘Come rain and the Gods smile down upon you’, is what we carry with us each year in our fervent belief in the Higher Power. While the showers remained scant this time around, the belief stays strong as preparations for the much-anticipated, the mammoth, the pride of Hindus and western states in particular, rings out in full pomp and glory… none other than Ganesh Chaturthi.

The 14-day long festival marks the birth of the Elephant God that began as a private ceremony in the Hindu Brahmin community, then made a public affair by sponsorship by Shivaji Maharaj. Later, it was Lokmanya Tilak who championed it as a means to bridge the gap between the Brahmin and non-Brahmin Hindus in Maharashtra and to evade the British government ban on Hindu gatherings through its anti-public assembly legislation in 1892. What it has evolved to today, is a massive fete of extravagance, colour and communal harmony on the one hand and pollution, wastage and lost significance on the other. Yet, ‘Ganpati’ as it is simply referred to, is entrenched in our culture, and a labour intensified beyond comparison. Here, we stop and look upon the GSB Seva Mandal and take you inside, predominantly into their bustling kitchens, an exclusive behind-the-scenes visit that will have you put this one down on your list of pandals for 2017, if you haven’t done it yet!

Hordes gather to the widespread arena that comprises the Hindu temple and its entrance, organised and presented each year, since 1955, by the GSB Seva Mandal – a non-profit organisation registered in 1951 on the auspicious day of Vijaya Dashami or Dussehra. Feet are stripped of their garments which are deposited in as orderly a fashion as can be, and devotees begin their spiritual walk to attain the blessings of the highly revered and feared Lord Ganesha, the Elephant God – whose worship is far flung and diffused to religions inclusive of Jainism and Buddhism – the son of Shiva and Parvati, brother of Karthikeya, Remover of Osbtacles and the Lord of New Beginnings.

With a new leaf to turn, well, in some aspects of our frenzied lives, we took step toward the modak-holder, in all his serenity and wisdom, in awe of the sheer numbers of the five-day celebration the GSB Mandal observes for the birth of Lord Ganesha. In awe of the organisational behaviour and efficiency of the committee with a high security of 700 strength; not to mention the devotees themselves – of sevedars, pass holders, members, VIPS and visitors for darshan. In full realisation and awareness that we were entering into the hallowed walls of the richest mandal in the city – read an insurance cover of Rs 300 crore in 2016 owing to the increase in the offerings of sona-chandi! And of course, our senses keen to the pitter-patter rushing in to the mandal, all as one entity in obeisance, men and women, children and the elderly, to the tune of nearly 10 lakhs over the course of its celebrations.

With Master Indian Chef at InterContinental Marine Drive, Bhairav Singh – a bhakt at GSB for more than six years now – to lead the way, we were welcomed to the temple by senior members/trustees of the Kannadiga Gowd Saraswat Brahmin community, Gurudutt Prabhu, with the mandal since 19 years followed by Radhakrishna Nayak, a catering professional who has been in service at the mandal since 1994. “Take a look at these calloused hands,” smiles the latter, “in service to God. With pride we say that five days of God’s work is equivalent to one year of our professional life.” From diverse walks, you see members of the community clad in dhotis and saris band together, much in advance, to get the ball rolling, from the operational logistics to the inventory for the food to be prepared and served and everything in between. With an allegiance to the Kashi Math Samsthan in Varanasi, the GSB Mandal begins its preparation with the sacred travel of the clay to be used, and a coconut, to the Maha Chaitanya Vrindavan of H H Shrimad Madhavendra Teertha at Shree Kashi Math in Walkeshwar, Bombay, for prayers before starting to make the idol. The coconut is then placed in the stomach area of the vigraha or murti which is deemed eco-friendly, more so as it is made with the all natural Shadu clay; and deemed majestic! States Gurudutt, “We build our murti from 70-80 kgs gold and 50 kgs silver. Work begins four months in advance on the heavy and tall statue.” That’s 14 ft. of pure riches donated by bhakt jan as seva or aabhar, in service or in gratitude for a wish come true. However, yet again, as in 2015, the mandal has decided to cut down on vast expenses this year, in concern of the drought-hit farmers, even appealing to donors to follow suit. Liquid assets and clothes will be delivered to the affected regions of the state and the Lord shall be adorned in gold only on the hands, legs and ears, we learn.

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As we make our way to the three kitchens where all the divine pot-stirring enfolds, the serpentine queues loom closer, of devotees seated on the floor in wait for their holy meal and of those on the elevated walkway which is set up for them to get a better view of the idol and offer darshan. “These devotees are not part of the large meal procession (as they do not offer puja in donation for their petitions) but are given prasad in coconut bowls once the naved is brought to one and all,” informs Gurudutt. “Naved is the prasad which is blessed at the murti and distributed, of atta, jaggery with ground coconut, banana and ground poha.” Now to dine in the temple, as part of the mass meal of Ganesh Chaturthi laid out by GSB Mandal, you have to offer puja anywhere from Rs 400-1000/- which includes a meal ticket. With a head count that crosses 10,000 each day – around 1000-1250 seated in 40 lines at one time – it’s a mean feat for sure, with no room for error in the production and distribution. Shares Radhakrishna, “We lay out about 25,000 banana leaves daily. Cooking begins at 3 am and goes on non-stop, till the last evening service. Breakfast is served from 8-11 am to the volunteers, and fewer public, which comprises of seviyaan, masala poha, Mysore bonda, idli and Mysore pak. Lunch is from 12:30-5 pm to the devotees, which is as simple and delicious as can be, with rice, dalitoy (tur dal), bhopla sambar, rasam, tendli sabzi, pickle, madgane (roasted chana dal) payasam and a boondi laddoo. We are a staff of 85 people in different departments inclusive of rice, curries, sweets and the like.”

While we are treated to the addictive goad appams, those mini brown, fried delights of atta, jaggery with grated coconut and cardamoms in pure ghee, we experience the toil that goes into the making of each sacred item, produced in gargantuan numbers, let’s say 120 kgs everyday! Vasantdada Thore, an office bearer mentions that a lakh a day quantifies the appams made and shares how the GSB Express chugs its way from Haridwar with the stocks for the culinary spread, which involves supervision of the inventory and coordination of duties on his part. Here onwards, once the kitchen receives the supplies, it’s a chain reaction and each department head delegates the roles accordingly. Enter the ‘main kitchen’ for the main meal and meet the rice team of six people. With 2500 volunteers in total for the occasion, the kitchen would appear to have the most hands, yet the ‘broth is unspoiled’, scrumptious and proficiently dished out. Quips Radhakrishna here, “We still find the volunteers less and have to resort to the machine to break 3500 coconuts a day. After all, it’s 5-7 lakh coconuts in all. And yes, we only use coconut oil in our cooking.”

There is unity in numbers. For a fact, the GSB community upholds this maxim and you have a Ganesh Chaturthi that is established the country over for its skill in implementation. When you make your visit to the GSB Seva Mandal – note that Fridays tend to see the most footfalls and of course the first day of Ganpati – you will take home sights such as the custom of tulabhara which includes measuring a donation as per one’s weight by placing the devotee in the scales; or the consecrated procession of the higher trustees in the temple; or a celebrity, say Aishwarya Rai. And sounds of traditional South Indian temple musical instruments which contribute to a noise-less area. And smells that waft from the kitchens to the dining halls… an experience that will remain etched for a long time. Ganpati Bappa Morya to one and all.

This feature was published in the Jul-Sep 2017 issue of UpperCrust magazine and used here with prior permission from the publisher. Photos: courtesy UpperCrust magazine