Ganesha’s French Connection

Ganesha Chariot Festival has become the most sought after event in Paris

During his recent visit to France for the G7 Summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the Indian diaspora and highlighted a very unique aspect which has received less attention and in fact has hardly been reported about. While greeting those present in the audience, he spoke about how Paris lights up during the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi.

Paris and Ganesh Chaturthi! Intrigued? It is the Manika Vinayakar Alayam in Paris, whose famous and colourful chariot festival is the reason that Ganesh Chaturthi has become such a hugely popular event in the metropolitan city.  Organic, bottom-up and people-driven, through the first ever Ganesha chariot festival, the Manika Vinayakar Alayam has well and truly been instrumental in mainstreaming and celebrating India's grand tradition in Paris.

Every successful event has an inspiring beginning. The nascent efforts of Manika Vinayakar Alayam started in 1985, at a University hall in Paris where the group set up a Ganesha puja. From then on in, there has been no looking back.  It was in 1994 that the Manika Vinayakar Alayam started the annual chariot festival which takes Ganesha in a procession through one of Paris’ most centrally located and crowded streets. The annual procession, led by priests, comprises of the Ganesha chariot steered by people. The festive procession is accompanied by musical instruments and the singing of devotional songs.

When the chariot festival was first thought of, the group faced a lot of flak and had to answer several tough questions from the civic and police authorities. But the lead organisers of the festival called for a meeting of authorities which was attended by several representatives of local media in Paris as well. “There were objections to the idea itself; questions were posed whether people will be safe. There were environmental and health concerns, there being the sound of musical instruments and use of fire during the festival, and so on. But we showed several videos of how Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated in India, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, through which we started convincing the authorities - mainly the police - for permission. We were patient in answering all their queries, and while it did take time, finally, they had to agree to the idea of holding the chariot festival,” said Vairamuthu Vaithilingam, President, Manikaya Vinayakar Alayam

The police authorities in Paris agreed to give permission to the chariot festival just for a year, to begin with. The police additionally asked Manika Vinayakar Alayam to sign a document that would hold them responsible if there was any harm caused due to the result of the festival. There were 80 police personnel provided for the festival. Ganesha and his devotees won over everyone! “The first Ganesha chariot festival was a roaring success. The authorities were so impressed that they called us and appreciated the manner in which we had organised the festival, without causing any damage. From there on in, the festival became an annual affair in Paris.”

The numbers present at the chariot festival has incrementally increased over the years, and participants are from diverse backgrounds. “The footfall of people will be anywhere between 70,000 to 1, 50,000; such huge crowds that it becomes increasingly difficult to control, but it is managed well. We have about 30-40 volunteers who give their time and efforts to the festival. People from several countries participate wholeheartedly, especially from India, China, Mauritius, Britain, Columbia, to name a few.”

The French citizens and authorities have taken gradual but definite interest in the chariot festival as well. “Nearly 30% of the festival attendees are French citizens. Representatives from the French Ministry of Cultural and Religious affairs participate every time we organise the chariot festival, “says Vaithilingam.

The annual chariot festival as well as the inception of the Ganesha temple by the Manika Vinayakar Alayam is a simple yet dedicated effort of the family of Vairamuthu Vaidyalingam, who is passionate about the cause and significance of Ganesha. With no hidden agenda in what started as a nascent effort, the chariot festival has gone on to become a huge organic success and a much sought after event in Paris.

The great news is that this is not just a one-off event in Europe. “If you take countries like Denmark, Austria, Norway, and others, they have all started celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi now, and this shows the larger acceptance of eastern traditions and cultural practices,” added Vairamuthu.

While Vairamuthu is based in London currently, he is from Jaffna in Srilanka, but he attributes his ancestry to India. He also makes it a point to visit India often, especially Goa. “Our ancestors hail from India and migrated about 200 odd years ago. Currently, I am in pursuit of finding my exact roots in Tamil Nadu. I think I am from southern Tamil Nadu. Hopefully, we will be able to solve that mystery soon!” 

Everyday ambassadors like Vairamuthu Vaithilingam drive home the heart-warming point that one’s culture must be worn on ones sleeve, with pride and joy. Most importantly, customs and traditions should be all-inclusive, allowing anyone and everyone to take part in a spirit of friendship and brotherhood. More power to such visionaries; the world will certainly be richer for their contributions.

(Author is Senior Research Fellow and Administrative Head at India Foundation’s Center for Soft Power. Views expressed by the author are his own)