Thursday, September 23, 2010

Of Pollution, Puja And God Who Gets Dumped

Here it was, yet again, the 17th of September, a day when motorized vehicles are adorned with vermilion, multi-colored balloons and yards and yards of colorful synthetic ribbons. On this day, puja pandals are hastily hammered together; in the basements of semi-finished buildings, factories, vehicle workshops and metal fabrication facilities - to house a mustachioed idol of a four-armed being riding an elephant and wearing a crown and loads of jewelry. In his hands he holds a water-pot, a book, a noose and craftsman's tools. The brightly colored idol that is kicking up such a frenzied activity is that of the mythological Vishwakarma - believed to be the chief architect and supreme engineer to all the Gods in the Hindu pantheon. 

Strangely, in my experience, it is not the engineers and the architects who honor the Hindu God but the migrant Bengali and Bihari labor force, mostly in the construction industry, who celebrate the Vishwakarma puja. And they do it with unrestrained zest and gusto. Street corners, construction sites and vehicle workshops - all come alive with a cacophony of popular Bollyhood movie songs blaring out of tattered sound boxes at decibels high enough to shatter one’s eardrums.

For a God who is celebrated with such passion and enthusiasm, the Hindu faithful seldom build temples or permanent statues in honor of Lord Vishwakarma. Perhaps, that is the reason why, during this puja celebrations, one will not be hearing any hymns or devotional songs extolling the virtues of this God of engineering and architecture. Instead, one will see devout Bengalis and Beharis gyrating wildly in front of the idols. This manner of honoring a God is alien to most Bhutanese who are used to expressing their devotion to God with murmured prayers offered with closed eyes and folded hands. Nevertheless, I have yet to see a Bhutanese decline the pandal’s make-shift Pundit’s customary offer to plant a red “tika” on their foreheads.

While the deafening sounds generated by the incessant pounding of old tins and empty plastic barrels keep the Bengali and the Bihari adrenaline flowing, a large population living close to these numerous pandals spread across the town is robbed of sleep and peace by the celebrations that go on unabated all night long.

I am told that there are in excess of 400 constructions that are ongoing in Thimphu town alone. This will get only worse in the coming years. Therefore, I get this feeling that the celebration of Vishwakarma puja, in its present form, has the potential to be a great public nuisance, if allowed to fester unchecked and unregulated. If we do not act now, there is a real danger that it may become a part of our culture – a culture that is neither meaningful nor productive. More importantly, even beyond the fear of being saddled with a culture not our own, the environmental damage and the noise pollution caused by these celebrations should be reason enough for concern. We need to intervene now when the problem is still relatively manageable.

There is something not quite right in the manner in which Vishwakarma puja is celebrated in our country. I see aspects to it that are not in conformity to the generally accepted code of conduct and decency required to be observed when celebrating in public spaces. It would appear that it hasn’t yet dawned on the Bhutanese people the long term damage the Vishwakarma puja celebration is causing to our environment. Or, as usual, we are taking a lackadaisical attitude towards it.

Let us consider the following:

1.   Celebration and/or conducting of any public function is, by rule, subject to proper written authorization from a designated government/regulatory authority. I have not yet heard of such a requirement being imposed on the annual celebration of the Vishwakarma puja. What are the reasons for this special immunity? Given the very public nature of the celebrations and considering that a large number of people congregate during this occasion, shouldn’t we require the event to be properly licensed and monitored? And, if we decide that they should be regulated, who should the regulatory authority be? - the Ministry of Home & Cultural Affairs, BICMA, the City Corporation or should it be the RBP? What should be the guidelines in order to ensure that it is celebrated in a way that it does not infringe on people’s peace and privacy or cause damage to the environment and the ecosystem?

2.   During the day of the celebrations, a large number of vehicles that ply on the roads are decorated with yards and yards of colorful synthetic ribbons and balloons and flowers made of Styrofoam that obstruct the vision of the drivers. This is clearly hazardous and could result in road mishaps and endanger lives. Strangely, if you ask those who partake in these decorations, they are clueless as to its religious or social significance. What is the RSTA’s and the Traffic Police’s stand on this? In most countries, anything that you attach to a vehicle that is not an allowable gear or attachment or useful accessory is tantamount to altering the original design of a vehicle which is prohibited. Is such a thing allowed under the RSTA or the Traffic rules? Without doubt, such decorations obstruct visibility and thus can be classified as dangerous driving. Should it be allowed?

3. The worst part of the Vishwakarma puja celebrations is that the celebrations end the next day - when the idols are immersed in rivers and lakes. It defies logic and it is absolutely incomprehensible that an idol of God that one revere and worship end up being dumped into the river like a bundle of garbage. Why would any one want to worship it if it were to end up being dumped like a pile of dirt?

However, it is not for us who are outside the faith to try and decipher the why, and the why for, of such a seemingly illogical act. To us, it is more important to understand the consequences of this act from the point of view of its impact on our environment.

4.   Traditionally, idols were made from mud and clay and painted using vegetable-based dyes. But commercialization of festivals and the sheer volume needed to be produced and transported over great distances meant that the traditional materials did not fulfill the design specifications of the modern idols. In the process, eco-friendly statues are no longer economically feasible. Thus, the new generation idols are produced from non-biodegradable materials such as plastic, cement and plaster of Paris and painted with chemical dyes that contain harmful and toxic agents. 

    Can you imagine what the thousands of idols, along with its synthetic and plastic trappings, being dumped into our river systems around the country are doing to our environment? Besides poisoning our water sources, can you imagine the damage it is causing to the aquatic creatures that inhabit our rivers and lakes?

Have you considered that these toxic materials finally end up inside the bellies of fish that we eat? Have you considered that the river waters with all the contaminants end up in the irrigation channels that our farmers use to irrigate their farms that produce food and vegetable that we consume? If this is going to be the case, how realistic is our dream of becoming a nation of organic farmers?

It is clear that unregulated celebration of the Vishwakarma puja can go beyond being merely a public nuisance. Its environmental implications are of greater concern. Why is it that the National Environment Commission has overlooked this issue? Why has the RSTA and the Traffic Police not been alerted of the dangers of vehicles being decorated with things that could cause dangerous accidents on the road?

I believe that it is time for the government and agencies under it to put in place rules and regulations and promulgate them to ensure that:

a.   the puja is celebrated in a manner that is not detrimental to our environment while, at the same time, it is celebrated in a way that it does not cause problems and hardships to others;

b.   that the celebration is licensed by a competent authority in order that the licensees can be held accountable;

c.  ensure that, if possible, idols are built in-country under strict supervision to ensure that only bio-degradable materials are used to build the idols and be decorated with environmentally friendly substances. If that is not feasible, ensure that their import is brought under some control so that only idols built with harmless and bio-degradable materials are allowed to enter the country.

I know that it is in the Buddhist spirit to allow free and fair practice of individual faith and culture. But being tolerant does not mean that we have to accept practices – whether cultural, religious or social – that harm the environment as well as cause disruption to the peace and tranquility of others within the sphere.

If we pride ourselves as an evolved lot with the capacity to think objectively, analytically and with reason, it is quite ridiculous to continue to engage in acts that were conceived in medieval times when conditions were different from what it is today. It is acceptable that certain beliefs and practices may have been pertinent and useful during a particular time and stage in our evolution – but not all of them are now useful or relevant or even practicable.

Conservation and protection of the natural environment is one of the four pillars of GNH. We take great pride in being a champion in environmental conservation. If that be the case, we should have no hesitation in rationalizing, if not entirely doing away with, certain practices that are undeniably accepted as being harmful to nature and the environment. In my opinion, there should be no doubt in anybody’s mind that the manner in which Vishwakarma puja is celebrated in its present form is a great polluter.

Lord Vishwakarma cannot be a very happy God knowing he has become a source of pollution and defilement of the environment.


  1. Aue Yeshey,

    In your usual fluid language topped up with great images and incisive rationale, you have indeed caught this issue by the horns!

    I have always been nagged by this celebration around this time of the year and was indeed contemplating a simple candid reflection on it on my blog but somehow decided against it. Well, like thousands of other motorists, I go with the flow albeit I ensure to have just a small ribbon and a couple of balloons adorning my car - and yes, most certainly none on the windscreen!

    Every ramshackle construction premise worth their metal pieces here in Babesa (where I live) sprung into a cacophony of noise, far beyond and above permitted decibel level (that’s if there’s such thing as “permitted decibel levels” here in Bhutan). In this clatter and clang one could hardly find his/her way around on the road. Worse still those monster tipper trucks - those ever pervasive and every motorist’s nightmare - were all decked up, so much so that one could hardly make out their windscreens even as they charged down the motor way!

    And the final straw of course was when the idols were dumped, “unceremoniously” I’d say, into the rivers. The ensuing ecological implications are, well, at best left unsaid here. It’s about time concerned agencies woke up from their usual lackadaisical slumber before we reach a point of no return!

  2. Wow, a really thought provoking article and I bet that nobody would have thought about the pollution brought by the celebration. It is high time that the agencies concerned should wake up and regulate the celebration as you have mentioned.

    Since 2002, the MoLHR has initiated to celebrate Zorig Day to honour craftsmen and artist and their contributions to the Bhutanese society. Currently the celebrations are done only by the Technical Institutes in the country. The day is celebrated every year on the 15th day of 3rd month of our calender. To bless the day, His Holiness the Je Khenpo has identified Pel Dueki Khorlo (Kalachakra) as the deity for crafts and technical vocations.
    The Ministry's initiative was to propagate the Zorig Day celebration equally like the Vishwakarma Puja but it has remained within the technical institutes only. Unless the Government declares this as one of the holidays, the celebration seems to remain silent. So far the celebration was religious and traditional and I hope in times to come the celebration does not become a hybrid of Vishwakarma Puja and Zorig Day. I hope that we will be able to proliferate this celebration in times to come.

  3. The NEC should have already perked up on this by now, i.e. the pollution to our rivers by year after year dumping of the idols. I am sure something can be worked around it without hurting any sensitivities. One of the ways as suggested by you is insisting on statues made from biodegradable materials.

  4. Hi Lakey, Yeshey and Anon,

    Thanks and I am glad that you have understood the issue for what it is.

    It is not a religious issue - it is an environmental issue and our Constitution appoints us as a trustee and a custodian of our environment. Some of us has to remain diligent to the threats.

    I hope that I have been able to stir the conscience of the people who must act.

    We have one year from now to the next puja. I hope that, by then, our government will have put in place regulations that will ensure that the puja is celebrated in a manner that is safe for the environment as well as for the people within the vicinity of the celebrations.

    I intent to take up the issue with the government and the concerned agencies in due course.