Millions of people in Maharashtra, cutting across religious lines, warmly welcomed the popular elephant-headed God, Lord Ganesha, amid the clouds of the Covid-19 pandemic and torrential rain here on Saturday.
Though the usual frenzy, glitter and glam were missing, it was sufficiently balanced by the people's enthusiasm as they looked forward to the cheerful 'Vignaharta' (Remover of Obstacles) answering their prayers and setting humanity free from the coronavirus.
Notably absent from the 10-day festivities are the famed Lalbaugcha Raja and other gigantic idols in Mumbai, the Dagdu Seth Ganeshotsav in Pune, and other prominent ones across Maharashtra owing to the pandemic restrictions.
With limits on the height of the idols this year, between 2-4 feet, various public mandals, housing complexes and families, in small groups with physical distancing, carried the idols during the auspicious 'murti sthapana' timing before starting the worship with aartis marking the birthday of Lord Ganesha, the son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati.
Revered as the God of Wisdom, the pot-bellied Lord Ganesha - who relishes 'Modaks'- is said to bring prosperity and good fortune, and marks a new beginning.
As huge crowds will be kept at bay this year, a majority of the public Ganeshotsav mandals have decided to convert the celebrations into 'Aarogyotsav' (health festival) with blood and plasma donation camps, launching various pandemic-related initiatives, said BrihanMumbai Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Samanway Samiti (BSGSS) President Naresh Dahibhavkar.
"There are various other concerns this year... Health, hygiene, physical distancing, people have borne pay cuts or job losses, companies are in losses. So all mandals are practicing austerity measures," Dahibhavkar told IANS.
Though the festival has been celebrated for centuries it was mostly within royal households or people's homes.
But in 1893, legendary freedom fighter, Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak brought it into the public domain to instil a sense of patriotism among the masses in Pune.
That year, the first public celebration was also held at Keshavji Naik Chawl in Girgaum (south Mumbai) under the watchful eyes of the British government and instantly became popular.
Not looking back since then, the festival has grown bigger, brighter, attracted practitioners of all religions with Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, etc. hosting or praying to Lord Ganesha, all over India and other countries globally.
In Maharashtra, the festival is celebrated in Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Nashik besides the coastal Konkan district where it's the biggest annual gala with Lord Ganesh 'visiting' almost every household in the tiny villages dotting the seaside or the hills nearby.
Though the pandemic and downpour have stopped people from venturing out, many temples like the Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai have arranged online 'darshan' and 'aartis' for the devotees, said the temple Chairman and Marathi filmstar Aadesh Bandekar.
A few who dared to step out, could get 'darshan' only from outside as temples and other places of worship have not opened up during the 'Unlockdown' phases.
As in the past, politicians starting with Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, ministers, industrialists, film stars and Bollywood personalities, sportspersons, businessmen, celebs and commoners will celebrate Ganeshotsav at their homes this year with the doors thrown open to all.
Rain clouds may hamper the festivities over the next couple of days with the IMD Deputy Director-General K.S. Hosalikar predicting heavy rain in the north coastal districts of Raigad, Mumbai, Thane and Palghar.
President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, the Thackeray family, state Congress President and Minister Balasaheb Thorat, Nationalist Congress President Sharad Pawar and other personalities greeted the people on the occasion of Ganesha Chaturthi.