On India's west coast, revelers hoist up statues of an elephant-headed god, and parade them toward the Arabian Sea. They sing and chant, and hand out food to bystanders.
For 10 days, they perform pooja — Hindu prayers — at the statues' feet and then submerge them in bodies of water.
This is a tradition in Mumbai, India's biggest city, near the end of each year's monsoon rains: a festival honoring Ganesh, or Lord Ganesha, the Hindu god of wisdom and good luck. He has a human body and an elephant head.
Families buy a Ganesh idol for the occasion, and pray over it at home, before processing toward the beach. Neighborhoods get together to erect temporary stages called pandals, on which they place giant Ganesh statues, and hold block parties around them.
The Ganpati festival, as it's also known, is celebrated all over India, with faithful immersing idols in lakes, streams, even man-made ponds dug out for the occasion. But Mumbai's Arabian Sea coast is where it's celebrated most fervently.
"We have a lot of faith. We have seen the time from where, you know, we used to not spend so much. The celebration was limited," says Amruta Savant, 33, celebrating with her uncles and children. "But every year, we have prosperity, and we are getting our wishes fulfilled. So the faith goes on increasing."
She places her idol in the sand and surrounds him with offerings — coconuts and strings of marigolds. She lights incense, while her relatives sing praise to Ganesh. Then one by one, they kneel down before the idol and whisper their wishes into the statue's ears.
Lifeguards man the beach at all hours, as faithful young and old wade into the waves, usually at night. They believe when Lord Ganesha is submerged, he goes straight to heaven.
"We dip him three times, and the third time, we leave him in the water," Savant explains. "It'll melt in the sea itself."
Many of the idols are now biodegradable, so they don't wash up later, or pollute marine life. But some are still made from plaster of Paris, which does not disintegrate. Cleanup workers arrive with trucks the next morning to haul water-worn statues away.
In Mumbai's largest slum, idols adorn a warren of impeccably clean little shacks. A local company, Reality Tours, takes tourists around, pointing out variations in different Ganesh statues and explaining the history.
Ganesh has been worshipped by Hindus for centuries. But this festival really took off after 1893, as a clever ruse by a freedom fighter.
When India was under British rule, curfews were often imposed to prevent independence-minded Indians from gathering for demonstrations or political meetings. Public gatherings were banned — except for religious ones.
So in 1893, the Indian freedom fighter Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak came up with a plot: He told the British that it was an important 10-day religious festival, that required people to gather in the streets and on the beaches, around Ganesh idols.
"He was a social reformer and also [an] Indian scholar, and he came up with this idea to mislead the British," says tour guide Suraj Hattarkal. "It was a trick, to bring the whole community together, and share revolutionary things."
India became independent from Britain on Aug. 15, 1947.
Nowadays, the festival is a massive party. There are processions, dancing and drumming. People hand out treats in the crowd. Ganesh specialties include modak, a type of sweet dumpling filled with shredded coconut, and laddus, bite-size spheres made from purified butter, flour, sugar and dried fruit.
"Everybody shares. We have food for 200 to 300 people!" says Ashish Tivari, a 22-year-old medical student celebrating with his neighbors.
Among them was 8-year-old Vinayak, who grabbed this visiting reporter's microphone.
"I am also his neighbor!" the boy squealed. Ganesh "is a god — our god."
Did he make a wish? Of course, he says, but it's a secret.
One of the chants you hear, as people bid farewell to Ganesh, waist-deep in water, is: "May we see you again next year."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Indian coastal city of Mumbai hosts one of the country's biggest festivals honoring Lord Ganesha. He's the Hindu god who has a human body and an elephant head. The faithful pray before idols of him and then immerse them in bodies of water. Here's NPR's Lauren Frayer from Mumbai and the culmination of the 10-day festival.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language).
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It's like a sea of people that comes down to meet the Arabian Sea, all hoisting statues of the elephant god Lord Ganesha on their shoulders. There are families. Behind me, there's a pack of teenage boys with a rainbow elephant on their shoulders. They do a prayer in the sand, and then they move slowly down to the sea and submerge their idol.
AMRUTA SAVANT: Before we immerse, we believe that we have to tell our wishes in Ganesha's ears, so those wishes get fulfilled next year.
FRAYER: Amruta Savant is here with her uncles and children all singing.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Marathi).
FRAYER: Praise Lord Ganesha in the local Marathi language - then they kneel down one by one and whisper their wishes into the statue's ears. Ganesh - or Lord Ganesha - is the Hindu god of wisdom and good luck. And Amruta says he's been good to her family.
SAVANT: We have a lot of faith. And we have seen the time from where, you know, like, we used to not spend so much. And the celebration was limited. But every year, we have prosperity. And we are getting our wishes fulfilled. So you know the faith goes on increasing.
FRAYER: Lifeguards man the beach as faithful, young and old, wade into the waves. They believe when Lord Ganesha is submerged, he goes straight to heaven.
SAVANT: We just dip him three times. And the third time, we leave him in the water. It will melt in the sea itself.
FRAYER: Many of the idols are now biodegradable, so they don't wash up later or pollute marine life. Whole neighborhoods erect stages with huge statues. In Mumbai's largest slum, idols adorn a warren of impeccably clean, little shacks. Suraj Hattarkal gives tours of them and explains the history.
SURAJ HATTARKAL: People, you know, pray to Lord Ganesh from centuries. But how it turned to be a festival - it has been only started in 1893, when India was under British rule. And a free India independence thing was happening, so there was a curfew declared.
FRAYER: Public gatherings were banned, except for religious ones. So an Indian freedom fighter invented this festival as a cover.
HATTARKAL: He misled the British, saying it's - we have a 10-days festival. And we have to come together and pray for 10 days. So this was the trick to bring the whole community and share all the revolutionary things.
FRAYER: Nowadays, it's a massive party - dancing, drumming. People hand out food in the streets.
ASHISH TIVARI: Everybody shares. We have food for 200 to 300 people.
FRAYER: Ashish Tivari is a medical student here with his neighbors and 8-year-old Vinayak.
VINAYAK: Hi. Hi. I am also his neighbor.
FRAYER: What does Ganesh mean to you?
VINAYAK: He's a god, our god.
FRAYER: And do you make a wish?
FRAYER: What is your wish?
VINAYAK: It is a secret.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language).
FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.