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Of Mooncakes, Red Lanterns and Elephant Gods

Op-Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Sept. 23 – The Mid-Autumn Festival in China culminated yesterday with the full moon and the traditional day for evening lanterns, being with friends and eating mooncakes – those filling, slightly sickly confections of fat, sesame and a boiled yolk that everyone raves over but in reality can only eat once a year. Yet China is not the only country to celebrate the full moon at this time. Portrayer of a fine harvest, signaling the end of a long hot summer, coupled with the romance of a grapefruit sized, rising celestial body, this lunar date has long transfixed people across Asia.

To compare them, I just flew from Shanghai to Mumbai, twinned sister cities, and connected directly via Air India and Air China, and also via the reverence of the moon. But there the similarities stop. While China gets nervous of masses of people having fun lest it leads to displays against the state, in India, the chaos of religion rules paramount, and literally millions of people – far more than the police could ever hope to control – converge upon Mumbai’s many beaches (Bombay means “eight bays” and the coastline of Mumbai is long and sandy) to give their house Ganesha a good ducking in the ocean.

Ganesh is the elephant-headed God, created when his dad Shiva tore Ganesh’s normal human head off in a rage when the boy refused to let him see his mother Pavarti, who was bathing naked at the time. Shiva, not realizing that Ganesh was his son (he’d been away for seven years fighting wars) then caught the wrath of his missus big time as she demanded to know why their boy had been decapitated. This isn’t like coming home late after a few too many bevies, and she was well ticked off. Shiva promised to restore the child with the first animal head he saw, and just at that moment an elephant walked by.

Ganesh is revered across the Hindu religion and into other aspects of Buddhism, Jainism and so on, and is usually depicted as fat, with his trunk dipped into a bowl of sweets (it seems mooncakes may be a step too far even for him, but you never know, a Chinese hybrid would be fun). He represents luck, among many other worthy attributes, and there are many temples devoted to him throughout India, especially in the west and around Mumbai. Down on Mumbai’s beaches last night, Ganeshas by the thousands were bought to the sea for a dunking – from small, humble Ganeshas left by the poor, to massive, twenty foot high Ganeshas, riding on palanquins and borne aloft by thirty men, serenaded by trumpets, bells and drums.

And there Ganesh is left, he’s spent a year at home, in the temple, bestowing good luck and happy vibes for a year, and his immersion signals a final act of bathing before a new Ganesh is put back in place. In Mumbai this year, it is estimated some 75,000 Ganeshas will be placed in the sea. Made mainly of papier-mâché or clay, they are usually gaudily painted and quite glamorous in an elephantine sort of way. But again, the immersion of Ganesh also occurs on the rising of the full moon, and India’s ancient religious culture demands nothing less than a full-on spectacle. It also depicts the differences between the people – the Chinese more pragmatic, ordered and reserved, the Indians colorful, chaotic and reverent.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the principal and founding partner of Dezan Shira & Associates, establishing the firm’s China practice in 1992 and the India practice in 2007. The firm now has ten offices in China and five in India. For advice over China-India strategy, trade, investment, legal and tax matters please contact the firm at [email protected]. The firm’s brochure may be downloaded here. Chris also contributes to Asia Briefing’s other titles, India Briefing, China Briefing and Vietnam Briefing.

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5 Responses to Of Mooncakes, Red Lanterns and Elephant Gods

  1. charlie says:

    Chris, mate, you don’t ‘dunk’ a Ganesha idol, you take it for immersion… vastly different acts, if you ask me. While a ‘Chinese hybrid’ of Ganesha is a near impossibility, you may want to know that China does manufacture Ganesha idols which people in India install in their homes on a permanent basis, and not take those for ‘dunking’.

    Mind you, I am not one of those ‘religiously inclined’ people, but a little bit of sensitivity from you would do no harm… yeah?

    cheers

  2. Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    Just a term of phrase Charlie. And I have over the years seen some rather impressive means of “immersing” Ganesh into the waters…especially when those waves get heavy. It’s the few days afterwards that the carnage shows – bits of body parts washed up all along the shore, and I’m a bit leery of the environmental impact. Still, all good fun. Thanks – Chris

  3. swoosh says:

    While chaotic and colorful is fine in a country of few million citizens, it is a nightmare in a country of billions.

  4. Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    Well, 1.3 billion probably (the census is being conducted now). India does work, in a very human, yet chaotic way. And in China it definately works, but only because the Chinese people have to be subverted to make it happen. Freedom and expression? Or managed and restricted? The political differences are right there. Thanks – Chris

  5. The_Observer says:

    @Chris
    I actual think you need to strike a balance between the free markets and individuality on the one hand and the good of the wider society on the other.

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