Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray on Friday urged citizens to launch a strong movement against coronavirus and said he prayed to Lord Ganesh to destroy all "evil and negativity" as the 10-day festival dedicated to the deity began amid the pandemic and looming threat of a third wave.
People welcomed Lord Ganesh in their homes and pandals in Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra without pomp and gaiety and with focus on online ''darshan'' to avoid gathering as the state government has made it clear it does not want to take any chance in view of an uptick in cases, especially in the metropolis.
For the second straight year, the pandemic cast a long shadow on Ganesh Chaturthi festivities with the Maharashtra government placing a slew of restrictions to avoid gathering and processions.
Urging citizens to strictly follow coronavirus norms, the CM said people's health was more important than any festival.
''We need to work towards eradicating the pandemic permanently by behaving as responsible citizens. In the last two years, we have been forced to impose restrictions in celebrations."
"People's lives and health are more important than any festival. I am confident Lord Ganesh, who is called Vighnaharta (one who removes all hurdles) will destroy the evil virus," he said.
Mr Thackeray asked citizens to use the festival to launch a movement to get rid of coronavirus by staying alert and following all norms.
"Just like Lokmanya Tilak used the Ganeshotav to inspire people to fight the British, all mandals and organisations should use the festival to create awareness about virus and ensure it is permanently destroyed,'' Mr Thackeray said.
He was speaking after performing the customary puja at his official residence ''Varsha'' in south Mumbai, where he welcomed Lord Ganesh.
Leader of Opposition in the Assembly Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP reiterated his demand for reopening places of worship, saying livelihood of people associated with them was severely impacted.
The festival, the most popular and awaited religious event in Maharashtra, begins on Ganesh Chaturthi and ends on Anant Chaturdashi 10 days later with immersion of idols.
The Maharashtra government has banned physical ''darshan'' of Lord Ganesh at community pandals (marquees) and said only online ''darshan'' or telecast from pandals would be allowed.
Citing the COVID-19 situation, the Mumbai police have imposed orders under CrPC section 144 prohibiting assembly of five or more persons during the Ganesh festival between September 10 to 19.
No processions of any kind would be allowed in Mumbai during this period and devotees would not be allowed to visit Ganesh pandals either, an official statement said on Thursday.
People can have "darshan'' of Ganesh idols installed in pandals through the online mode or through other electronic media (such as TV), it said.
The Maharashtra home department has issued a circular banning visits to pandals so as to prevent the spread of the viral infection.
Also, the height Lord Ganesh idols to be installed has been restricted.
In Mumbai, there are around 12,000 sarvajanik (community) mandals and nearly two lakh homes where idols of the deity are installed.
The usual pomp was missing since processions have been banned. Lord Ganesh made a quiet entry into the homes of his devotees.
Naresh Dahibavkar, president, Brihanmumbai Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav Samanvay Samiti, told PTI that compared to last year, when 90 per cent of the mandals had celebrated the festival in view of the coronavirus outbreak, this year all of them are installing idols of the deity.
The samiti is an umbrella body of Ganesh mandals that coordinates the festival between the BMC and government agencies.
Last year, Lalbaghcha Raja, Mumbai's most famous mandal, had cancelled the celebration, while Wadala's GSB Sewa Samiti, another well-known mandal, had postponed the celebration to Magh Shudh charturthi in February this year.
"The festival will be celebrated with usual fervour and gaiety unlike last year as the COVID-19 vaccination drive is going on and there is awareness among people about the pandemic," Mr Dahibavkar said.
"In view of the third wave threat, all government protocols for COVID-19- appropriate behaviour are being observed," he said.
Mr Dahibavkar criticised the government for banning physical darshan.
"This has been done at the last minute. The stake-holders were not consulted. Physical darshan was banned last year too. We will suffer heavy losses since there will be no devotees to see the banners and posters of our sponsors," he said.
Livelihood of people associated with the festival, which generates a turnover of Rs 70 crore to Rs 100 crore (in Mumbai), will continue to be impacted due to the pandemic, Mr Dahibavkar said.
He said Ganesh mandals have contributed to the state government's efforts to provide relief to people in flood-affected Konkan region and have also been doing social activities.
"The government should have considered our problems too," he said, adding, "The mandals have contributed Rs 40 lakh towards flood relief," he said.
The state government has issued an order to ban physical darshan at mandals and said not more than ten people (who have to be fully vaccinated) would be allowed to bring the idol which should not be more than 4 feet in height (at marquees).
Home idols should not be more than two feet in height and only 5 people (fully vaccinated) will be allowed to accompany the idol.
The administration has put restrictions during immersion of idols as well.
In the last two days, markets were overcrowded with people making purchases to welcome the elephant-headed God, raising concerns about the lack of physical distancing.
The GSB Sewa Mandal, which installs the idol for five days at Kings Circle in Mumbai, said this year's celebrations will be simple.
It said during the last one year, the mandal has distributed food to relatives of patients in government hospitals and was in the forefront of relief and rehabilitation efforts during Konkan floods in July.
"We will celebrate the festival religiously like every year but without any devotee visiting the pandal as per government guidelines," the GSB Sewa Mandal said in a statement.
Live darshan will be on the mandal's social media platform, it said.
Several celebrities and political leaders also installed the deity at their homes.
In Pune too, devotees welcomed the elephant-headed God in their homes and at pandals. Key Ganesh mandals in Pune, including five ''manache'' (revered ) mandals, performed ''pranpratishtha'' (installation) of idols in pandals (marquees) following COVID-19 protocols.
Mahesh Suryavanshi, a trustee at Shreemant Dagdusheth Halwai Ganpati, said the ''pranpratishtha'' of Pune's ost endearing deity, was performed inside the main temple in a simple manner.
The civic administration has appealed to all Ganesh mandals to celebrate the festival in a simple manner and make arrangements for online ''darshan'' for devotees.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)