Human Flower Project

Durga Puja—The Morning After

Indian authorities and engineers deal with the floral remnants of a Hindu rite.


Carrying Durga idol to the Hooghly River

Photo: Reuters, via Tribune of India

The Durga Puja, 10 days of ceremonies and feasts honoring the supreme mother goddess of Hinduism, has just come to a close. As with any party, there’s major clean-up involved.  But the morning after, in this case, involves a bit more than toting empty glasses to the kitchen.

The festivities ended Thursday with the ritual immersion of Durga statues and thousands of floral garlands in the rivers of India. In the Ganges especially, the aftermath of this ceremonial observance is causing serious ecological problems.

imagePreparing to submerge Durga

Yamuna River, Delhi, 2002

Photo: Elizabeth Dalziel

“The situation is pathetic,” writes the Statesman.  “All the ghats (broad stairs leading to the river)  are littered with heaps of flowers, marigold garlands, green coconuts, broken pots and straw structures of the idols….Headless idols and floating hay structures of the deities like corpses are a common sight on the Ganges.”

The City of Kolkata (Calcutta) floated one idea—to set vehicles along the river to receive the idols and flowers, but the puja committees didn’t go for it. “Throwing flowers into the Ganges is a part of the ritual,” said one committee leader. City officials also have placed cages and nets at some spots along the river, so that the flowers and idols can be more easily hauled away.

One might think that flowers, being biodegradable, could cause no harm to the ecology, but it’s all a matter of scale. With thousands of decorated idols, from private homes and public organizations, the river can’t handle the volume. The Kolkata sanitation office specified that flower garlands “increase floating suspended matter, organic contamination, oil & grease.”

imageA boy sifts through remnants of the Durga puja

When ancient rites conflict with contemporary health concerns, what’s to be done? One enterprising chemical engineer announced plans to use the discarded flowers. Jadavpur University’s chemical engineering department studied the problem and found that “two-day old flowers could be utilised for preparation of dyes.” Other debris will be used to make bio-fertilizers.

“Volunteers will sift the flowers from bamboo, leaves and other material at the immersion sites. According to preliminary studies, marigold, hibiscus and aprajita are among the flowers that are mostly used.”

Durga  is usually depicted as “a resplendent golden figure standing on a lion’s back, each of her ten arms bearing a particular weapon, as she triumphs over the demon.” Her name means “She who is incomprehensible or difficult to reach.” May she be pleased with these efforts to reconcile piety and public health.

(In the U.S. celebrations of the Durga puja continue for the next several days—check this calendar.)

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