Lalbaugcha Raja: First-timer experience, marketing insights & caution!
Born in a South Indian family, celebrating Ganesha Chaturthi was an important family tradition. And every year when Ganesh Chaturthi drew closer, I used to read newspapers singing praises of Lalbaugcha Raja Ganeshotsav Mandal, Mumbai: the largest in the world in terms of the sheer number of devotees visiting, brand equity it possesses and the historical proof of Him fulfilling wishes! So when I had the privilege to visit this revered Ganesh Mandal on the very first day of Ganesh Chaturthi, I thought I should share my hands-on experience:
I got down at Lower Parel railway station (western line) and after a leisure walk of ten minutes on east side (or five minutes from Currey Road station), I was bombarded with telecom hoardings on either side of the road, with rows of light bulbs which you would see only in Diwali or Navratri. This was the Pole Star for a newcomer like me and I followed it for around 300 meters. Soon I was face to face with a huge crowd trying to get inside of what was actually a decorated gate, specially constructed for the festivities. With a friend of mine, we stood in what was a general line queue and after around half an hour of jostling and being pushed around, we were face-to-face with the huge idol of Lord Ganesha smiling at us. A few pics later we were comfortably out in the open air. That’s it? So quick and soon? Like a breeze! Was this the God for whom I was waiting since years? Lucky us, we thought and proceeded ahead, partaking in the village fair-type stalls put up outside.
Suddenly one of the guys around asked me, Where was the main Lord Ganesha, Lalbaugcha Raja, named after the area it is located in, Lalbaug. I prompted replied, Dude- that’s from where you have just stepped out! He gave a wicked laugh and said, Looks like you are also not from this place, like me. This is not that, Lalbaugcha Raja should be ahead. I was dumbfounded. To confirm, I asked a passer-by who further seconded what I had just heard. Yeah, what we had visited was Ganesha Galli’s Mumbaicha Raja and not Lalbaugcha Raja! Ouch! That hurt. Considering I had already checked-in into the revered place on Facebook, I had to find out where it was and visit it.
An old gentleman asked us to follow him and some distance away we saw a long queue complex with hordes of people ‘patiently’ waiting to move ahead. Phew! The very sight gave me jitters. Still, gathering myself together and inspired by my friend, who kept on saying few more minutes, we walked ahead to search the entrance to the serpentine queue. While it seemed endless, we quickly jumped over a barricade and joined the crowd who were standing in at least half a dozen parallel lines, seemingly disciplined. Then the drama began! People who were already in the lines and who saw us joining them from between (along with a dozen other folks) began shouting and booing and pushing each other as a protest. While I and my friend managed to mix up in the crowd, few others were shooed away but still managed to join. And then started the journey to meet the Vigna-Harta!
The crowd, arranged in 6-7 parallel lines, had bamboo barricades on one side and shops, few of them open, on the other side. There were men and women, kids and babies, old people and youngsters, all jostling for space. At regular intervals, there were a handful of volunteers who ensured people move ahead only in batches. But there was no one to ensure people stand or behave in a disciplined manner. Every other person was pushing and the cascading effect began. Whenever new people jumped the barricades to join us (like we had done earlier), others pushed and a few inadvertently fell inside the shops! Babies were crying and kids howling. It seemed like we were in a Nazi concentration camp. Or in better words, inside a Virar local’s general compartment which has come after one hour. Or more politely, inside a local where people are just boarding at Dombivli. Only it was not in a train! Jam-packed. Suffocating. A stampede-like situation. In the 150-odd meters we underwent this penance, a few had lost their slippers and a kid had lost her parents (fortunately reunited soon). The most important people who were supposed to take care of all this were found merrily eating vada-pav and bhaji-pav at the handcarts ahead- the ‘alert’ Mumbai Police on duty.
However, within seconds of this ordeal, we entered a huge, specially constructed hall, whose very purpose was to slowdown the tens of hundreds of people and make them move slowly. It was a huge queue complex, some 20-21 long parallel queue barricaded lines of around 30-35 meters each. It seemed heavenly with what we had just experienced outside. And with ceiling fans blowing out some air, we were relaxed and another journey of around 45 minutes began.
Security: Pathetic would be the best word. May be I expected more. Yes, there were CCTVs watching you but I am not sure if somebody was watching the CCTV to prevent any wrong-doing on the spot. Yes, there are RAF and CRPF outside to guard you. Outside I said. Three metal detectors kept, newly installed of course with their plastic coverings intact, didn’t even beep when we crossed to enter the hall. Lord Ganesha only knows if they were activated or not. This Ganesha Mandal was and is a sitting duck for someone to blow up, if people survive the stampede-like situation in the lines outside (new for me, may be usual for the regular janta)
Now some math: As I said there were around 21 parallel barricaded queue lines and with 3 lines accounting for almost 100 meters, around 700 meters of compulsory queue complex covered half the area. There was a small platform to climb after this and then again the whole arrangement was repeated! So around 1.5 kms to walk in that queue complex. With anywhere between 3000-4000 people stuck up in that place for at least 45-50 minutes (dynamically, of course), the marketing keeda in me raised a question: what is being catered to these 6000-8000 eyeballs for nearly an hour? Any advertiser worth his salt would die to be present there. You bet there were many!
2 huge screens (I don’t know what quality LED screens were they, as they appeared to be hurriedly arranged together) showcase some random ads without any continuity or theme, punctuated with blank test-screens. Yes, there were dozens of flex hoardings which showcased everything from Philips to WeChat to Docomo to Oye 104.8 FM. Even Zandu Balm, SBI and Lava mobiles had their say. From FMCG, Parle and some Goldiee Chhole Masala held their heads up. Zee Talkies supposedly sponsored the LED screens but it wasn’t Zee which was featured on the screens. No devotional songs blaring and no music CDs to be sold. No Ganesha tshirts and no social messages! I felt, surely I would have tried something better, even if they were gimmicks, to attract this potential target-group.
I was still wondering- a minimum of 6000 eyeballs, all yours for around an hour, and still it was not being exploited. Yes, there were a few smartly dressed Snicker sales staff selling the veg-versions but that’s it. Water was being supplied at a far-corner but no Aquaguard to showcase their 100% shuddh paani. It was quite smelly but no Agarbatti brand to promote its fragrance. It was warm but no Orient fans’ branding to make its mark. A religious gathering but no NGOs for blood/organ donation awareness. I spotted a couple of Govt. sponsored health banners but that’s it. Very static. May be marketers are still considering the Kumbh Mela to be the only religious gathering to be milked!
Anyways, we were soon out of the hall and became the part of the final queue (Phew!) to witness the Lord in all in His grandeur. I had seen the photos in the newspapers but nothing came even closer to see the Lord right in front of you. It was the Eureka moment which Arjun might have felt when he saw Lord Krsna in his Divine form in the battlefield. Lord Ganesha appeared indeed the Raja of the World, and not just Lalbaug, in his standing posture, as if inspiring millions who see Him.
I had a desire to see Him one more time. Upon enquiring I was told, though the place is open for visit all 11 days, all 24 hours, but the chances of a thin crowd are remote, even in the dead of night. Such is the devotion it commands! Soon the volunteers literally pushed us out to make way for others and there culminated my, and my friend’s, desire of many years of seeing the biggest, largest and most worshipped Lord Ganesha’s avatar at Lalbaugcha Raja. Outside the complex, there were scores of outlets selling photos and idols of the Lord in all his avatars and dozens of sweetmeat shops too, acting like the desserts after meals.
I was, and still am, introspecting. Do we need a festival to showcase our devotion? Or an idol to pretend that we are devoted and respect God and do well to our fellow beings? Aren’t we then still like the school kids who make noise when the teacher is absent and fall silent as soon as the teacher comes? Or are we just pretending to be good and devoted, even in front of the Lord? May be we are fooling ourselves. I am, still, introspecting. Om Ganeshaya Namah. May we all have a good beginning!