Mumbai's Ganesh idols, which are displayed all over the city during the annual Ganesh Chaturthi festival, are an awe-inspiring sight. It's natural to wonder about how they're made and the amount of work that's gone into creating them. If you're interested in finding out, it's possible to see the statues being crafted. Where and how depends on how much time you have available.
Idol-making is big business. The skill is handed down from generation to generation, plus many migrants also come to Mumbai to help in the labor-intensive process. It gets underway around three months before the festival takes place. The best time to see the action is in the few weeks leading up to the start of the festival in August or September (see festival dates), as this is when the finishing touches are put on the idols.
If You Have a Few Hours
Take a walk around the lanes of Parel, Chinchpokli, and Lalbaug in central south Mumbai. You'll find workshops, big and small, everywhere.
One of the most famous workshops is that of Vijay Khatu. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2017 but his family have kept the workshop running. In 2018, it was relocated from near the Central Railway Workshop in Parel to India United Mills, close to Bharatmata cinema. He has a Facebook Page with more information.
- How to Get There: The Mumbai local train is the quickest and easiest way. You can start by getting off at Chinchpokli and heading right up Sane Guruji Road towards Ganesh Talkies and the Lalbaug Flyover.
- Go on a Tour: Alternatively, if you'd prefer to take a tour, there are a couple of options. Beyond Bombay and Breakaway run popular guided walks through Lalbaug in the weeks leading up to the festival. This is a convenient and recommended way of seeing the idols being made, as you don't have to worry about language difficulties or getting lost, and you'll receive an insightful commentary. You can read about my experience on Breakaway's guided walking tour here.
If You Have A Day or Two
Visit the village of Pen, two hours south of Mumbai. It is there that the majority of Ganesh idols are crafted. The idol-making industry in Pen has been going on for more than a century and is huge, with most people from the village involved in process. But, just how huge is huge? The figures are impressive. Around 150,000 idol makers work in more than 550 factories to produce 600,000-700,000 Ganesh statues a year, with a turnover of about 10 crore rupees (more than $1.5 million). Over one quarter of the statues are exported.
The rest are sold in India, but for a premium -- everyone wants an idol made in Pen!
You'll discover that idol making in Pen has an interesting history. The villagers have always been artistic. Originally, they were adept at making items such as idols out of paper, and stuffed parrots. When the Ganesh festival went from being a private to a community event in the 1890s, some of Pen's artisans shifted their skills to making clay idols for the festival. They were sold locally under a barter system for a few kilos of rice, but there was no money in it. Of course, that's not the case these days!
The idol making is spread out all over Pen. However, much of it takes place workshops attached to homes in Kasar Ali, Kumbhar Ali and Parit Ali -- streets all named after their original settlers. If you wander around, you'll discover them. Prathamesh Kala Kendra on Kasar Ali is renowned. One of the largest clay-idol making workshops in Pen is Trimurti Kala Mandir, owned by Baliram Pawar and tucked away in a lane off Dattar Ali. To see the really big workshops, you'll need to head to Hamrapur village, around 15 minutes away.
The Pen Municipal Council has also launched a Ganesh Idol Museum and Information Center project, to provide tourists with detailed information about the art and process involved in idol making.
- How to Get There: Pen lies 80 kilometers from Mumbai on the NH-17 Mumbai to Goa Highway and it's easiest to get there by road. You can hire a car and driver for the day for about 3,000 rupees. Uber is a convenient option. Intrepid travelers may prefer to take an inexpensive Maharashtra State Transport bus, which stops in town. Pen can also be reached by train from Mumbai. Not many long-distance trains stop there though. It's possible to catch a local service, although there's only one per day and it departs in the afternoon. The 50103 Dadar-Ratnagiri Passenger train leaves Dadar (in central south Mumbai) at 3.40 p.m. and arrives in Pen at 5.55 p.m.
Since Pen is on the way to Alibaug, a popular beach destination, you could combine your trip with a getaway there. It won't be beach weather due to the monsoon, but you'll still be able to relax! Otherwise, there best place to stay in Pen is the Hotel Marquis Manthan located on the Mumbai Goa Highway. Pen isn't a pretty place though, so it's unlikely you'll want to spend a lot of time there.