In Mumbai, devotees prepare to immerse an idol of Ganesh in the Arabian Sea on the last day of Ganesh Chaturthi this September. Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

During the annual Hindu festival of Ganesh Chaturthi, millions of icons of the god are submerged in Indian waters. And that’s bad news for the environment.

The mischievous half-elephant, half-human deity is revered by Hindus as the remover of obstacles and the god of beginnings. Idols for Ganesh Chaturthi were traditionally made of clay, but plaster of Paris is now more popular due to its lower cost.

Imagine you are on a beach in India. The water is warm, the sand crowded with people. Your child skips along, but suddenly, she shrieks in fright.

At her feet, entangled in a garland of orange marigold flowers, is what appears to be a human hand.

For 10 days a year in late summer, during the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi, devotees across India worship one of the country’s favorite gods, Ganesh (or Ganesha), before immersing his idol in a body of water. Every year, an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 idols are submerged in Mumbai alone—the numbers for the rest of the country too staggering to contemplate.

The cost to the environment, however, is high.

The heavily painted and decorated idols, which usually range from two to 25 feet high (though one in southern India last year measured 117 feet), go into the water and stay there. Most are not biodegradable, so they float around for years, exacerbating pollution in rivers and lakes.

The sight of plaster body parts strewn around beaches in Mumbai prompted Anand Pendharkar of the Sprouts Environment Trust to take action. Pendharkar is a respected wildlife biologist and educator. He founded Sprouts to raise awareness about environmental issues among children and young people from low-income families.

“The west coast of India … [has] a large, varied biodiversity, with dolphins and hundreds of species of fish,” he says. “This fragile ecosystem is in danger of being destroyed with the trash and pollution.”

Volunteers pull parts of Ganesh Chaturthi idols out of the water. (Sprouts Environment Trust)

Post-festival beach cleanups were Sprouts’ first course of action. Volunteers waded into the water and dragged out large plastic and plaster objects. Mounds of waste were collected for recycling or disposal. For the past 12 years, these cleanups have happened after every Chaturthi. This year, though, Pendharkar wanted to do more.

“The cleanups are an end-of-pipeline solution,” he says. “We’d clean the beaches, and next year, it would be the same scenario again. We were not addressing the problem directly.”

Activists then tried making typical Ganesha idols out of clay. Clay dissolves easily, so it’s a more eco-friendly choice for immersion. The idols, however, continued to be painted with toxic paints, which poison fish, rendering the whole exercise useless.

This year, Sprouts worked with advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather on the Chaturthi problem. Together, they came up with an appealing solution: create an idol that is not only biodegradable, but beneficial to marine life.

The new idols are made of hollow clay, painted with natural dyes, and stuffed with fish food. (Sprouts Environment Trust)

In collaboration with artisans, Ogilvy created a nine-inch prototype idol with a hollow body. “The clay idols are made from natural, vegetarian, biodegradable, and ocean-friendly material, which is harmless,” says Pendharkar.

The idols are then filled with small nuggets of corn, spinach, and other fish-friendly edible materials, and painted with natural dyes such as turmeric, sandalwood, and vermilion. After immersion, they dissolve within a few hours, leaving only the fish food.

Each idol is crafted by hand, a time-consuming process. Initially, the artisans found the new designs dull—they had to set aside their preference for dazzling synthetic colors in favor of natural ones.

Supported heavily by Ogilvy, #GodSaveTheOcean went viral on social media. “Given our limited resources, we had planned to make only a few dozen idols. But when the campaign launched, we got calls from 20 cities, five countries, and hundreds of text messages and emails,” Pendharkar says.

To meet the sudden demand, Sprouts interns worked long hours, and eventually, the nonprofit also contracted with a women’s self-help group. (Religious idols in India are traditionally made by male artisans.) Next year, Sprouts will start taking orders early to avoid a rush. But for the activists who have pulled tons of debris out of the water, the surprising popularity of the first campaign can only be good news.

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