Lord Ganesha is considered as the most prominent god in the Hindu pantheon. He is known for his elephant head and can be spotted in every Hindu household - as an idol in the pooja room, at the entrance of the house, on calendars and where not.
Ganesha is worshipped by all - the young and the old, the rich and the poor - to invoke blessings, wisdom and prosperity. Ganesha is known by 108 other names. Vinayak is one among them which is known to all. Hence Ganesh Chaturthi is also referred to, by people, as Vinayak Chaturthi.
Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated to commemorate the birth of Lord Ganesha. Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati are his parents. As per the Hindu lunisolar calendar, the birth date falls on the Chaturthi (fourth day) of Shukla Paksha in the month of Bhadrapada and lasts for 10 long days ending on Ananta Chaturdashi. As per the English calendar year, the date usually falls between mid-August and mid-September.
There are two legends in connection with the birth of Lord Ganesha. The first one goes this way. Goddess Parvati was having her bath and she wanted someone to stand guard at the door. She created Ganesha from sandalwood dough, infused life into him and asked him to do the job.
Lord Shiva came back home after meditating on Mount Kailash and wanted to meet Parvati. Lord Shiva and Ganesha didn't know each other and so Ganesha stopped him from entering which resulted in chaos with Lord Shiva severing Ganesha's head.
Parvati, on knowing this, fumed and took the avatar of Kali and threatened to destroy the world if Ganesha was not brought back to life. So, Lord Shiva sent his attendants to get the head of the first living creature they could find. It was that of an elephant.
The head of the elephant was placed on the headless body by Lord Shiva, thus, giving Ganesha a rebirth. This is how Lord Ganesha got his elephant head and it is this rebirth that is widely celebrated as Ganesh Chaturthi.
Another legend is that Ganesha was created by Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati at the request of the Devas. They wanted Ganesha to be an obstacle-creator for the Rakshasas and an obstacle-averter for the Devas.
The celebrations were initiated by Chhatrapati Shivaji in the state of Maharashtra. Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana also celebrate the festival with great fervor. Nowadays, Hindu communities outside India too never miss out on the festival.
The preparations are intense for the 10 days and start months in advance. Sculptors sweat it out to make idols of Lord Ganesha starting from as small as ¾ inches to 30 meters in height using various materials. The idols are installed in every Hindu household and one can find Lord Ganesha in the corners of every street. Rituals and prayers are performed during the 10 days with great reverence. Modaks, the favourite sweet of the Lord, are made on all days and distributed.
On the last day, thousands of people flood the streets in a procession to immerse the idols in the nearest water body, mostly the sea. This act signifies that the devotees of Lord Ganesha are sending him back to his parents on Mount Kailash. Flowers are strewn all along the pathway with galore of music and dances.
The chanting, "Ganapathi bappa moriya," can be heard all over. People await the return of the Lord for the coming year. This way of celebrating the festival outside rather than inside the household alone brought in a sense of unity and togetherness among all the sections of the Hindu community.