Ganesh idols, which are statues displayed all over the city of Mumbai on India's west coast during the annual Ganesh Chaturthi festival, are an awe-inspiring sight. If you're interested in learning more, there are various places to see the statues being crafted, depending on how much time you have available.
Idol-making is big business. The skill is handed down from generation to generation, plus many migrants go 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 gathering in August or September when the finishing touches are put on the idols.
Note some of the workshops or events may be altered or canceled for 2020; see details below as well as event and local websites. This includes the idols making process, which is not taking place in the usual manner.
What You Can See in a Few Hours
If you have limited time, take a walk around the lanes in the neighborhoods Parel, Chinchpokli, and Lalbaug in central south Mumbai. Big and small workshops are everywhere.
One of the most famous workshops is that of the late Vijay Khatu at India United Mills, close to Bharatmata cinema.
Another renowned workshop is that of Ratnakar Kambli, the head of Kambli Arts, near Chinchpokli Bridge who has been making Mumbai's most famous idol, the Lalbaugcha Raja, since 1935. The Mumbai local train is the quickest and easiest way to get there; you can get off at Chinchpokli and head up Sane Guruji Road toward Ganesh Talkies Building and the Lalbaug Flyover.
Alternatively, if you'd prefer to take a tour, 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.
What You Can Enjoy in a Day or Two
If you have some more time, visit the village of Pen, two hours south of Mumbai, where the majority of Ganesh statues are crafted. Making idols is a huge industry, with most people from the village involved in the process. Around 200,000 idol makers work in more than 550 factories to produce 600,000-700,000 Ganesh statues a year. 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.
The idol making is spread out all over Pen. However, much of it takes place in 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 Centre project to provide tourists with detailed information about the art and process involved in idol making.
The History of Idols in Pen
The idol-making industry in Pen has been going on for more than a century. Villagers in Pen 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 at the time.
How to Get to Pen
Pen lies 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Mumbai on the Mumbai Highway and National Highway 66 and it's easiest to get there by road. You can hire a car and driver for the day; prices vary based on the company, type of car, and more. Uber is also a convenient option. Intrepid travelers may prefer to take an inexpensive Maharashtra State Road Transport bus, which stops in town. In addition, Pen can be reached by an Indian Railways train from Mumbai, although there's only one per day.
A Relaxing Side Trip
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 starting in June, but you'll still be able to relax. Otherwise, one of the best places 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.