Nanditha Krishna
Hon. Director
C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre
(Adapted from The New Sunday Express, September 29, 2002)

Ganesh Chaturthi is Indian creativity at its contemporary best. A celebration that has assumed larger-than-lifeproportions, Ganesha comes in all sizes, shapes, scenarios and colours. The popularity and public celebration was due to the personal effort of Lokamanya Balgangadhar Tilak who, in 1893, utilized the festival to speak out against British rule in India. He brought the deity out of the home and made him the focus of a community celebration and a socio-religious movement that was to shake the foundations of the British Empire, uniting Maharashtrians of all castes and hues. There it stayed till, in recent years, it has become a community festival all over India, with large community Ganeshas that have kindled the imagination of their creators and sponsors. In recent times, the community worship of Ganesha has spread to the southern states where Ganesha is a popular deity.

Ganapati, the chief of the ganas is mentioned in the Rig Veda, but the word was an epithet of Indra. Ganesha’s origins are obscure. The earliest appearance of an elephant-headed figure, holding a sword and a snake in one hand and a quill in another, was at Luristan in Western Iran around 1000 B.C. Was this the scribe of the Mahabharata? Ganesha was a popular deity in pre-Islamic Afghanistan, at Sakar Dhar and Gardez and many other places. Says an inscription from Gardez, “a beautiful and renowned Maha Vinayaka was consecrated by the renowned Shahi king, the illustrious Shahi Khingala”. The elephant – the world’s largest mammal – huge and powerful yet gentle, is associated with wisdom, memory and longevity. He is the ultimate protector, the preventer of mishaps. No wonder he was deified.


For a long time, the Ganesha image in India did not graduate from the standing and seated figures, holding the elephant goad, sugar cane, a tusk or pen or modak (sweet). The enormous elephant on a tiny mouse was a study in contrast. And then came the Puranas, where the Ganesha lore exploded with myriad legends. His origins, exploits and associations were renewed till a whole epic was created around the god. As usual, contradictions began. Was he a bachelor, as per the southern tradition, or did he have two wives – Siddhi and Buddhi – as per Maharashtrian tradition? Or was he a Tantric, with the association of Shakti? In the Chalukyan cave temple at Badami appeared the first dancing Ganesha, carried away by the magnificence of his father Shiva’s tandava. It is also in the Chalukyan temple at Aihole that Ganesha’s association with the Saptamatrikas is first seen, an association that has lasted till today in village shrines all over central and southern India. In fact, the early Chalukyas of Central India probably promoted the worship of Ganesha. The later Cholas of Thanjavur took the dancing Ganesha to great heights, but it was in Orissa that the Nritta Ganapati reached artistic perfection. The happy dancing Ganesha becomes a violent Tantric figure in Nepal, where the mouse vehicle is replaced by Shakti’s lion as Ganesha’s vehicle.

Ganesha took a different form abroad. A popular figure in Mahayana Buddhism, his sculptures are found in Tibet and Nepal where, says a local legend, Ashoka’s daughter Charumati built a temple in his honour. The five-headed Heramba Ganesha and the snake-hooded form are very popular forms here. Ganesha images are found in China and Japan, where he is often referred to as the spirit king of the elephants. His Japanese forms are the esoteric Kangi-ten and the three-headed Kaku-zen-cho, who are often seated on a mountain. He is worshipped as Maha-pienne in Burma, while he is the guardian of river crossings in Java. Cambodia, Java and Bali saw a proliferation of Ganesha images.

It was in Maharashtra that the worship of Ganesha reached its heights. The Ashta Vinayak – Mayureshwar, Chintamani, Mahaganapati, Siddhivinayak, Vighneshwar, Girijatmak, Balleshwar and Varadvinayak – are all situated in villages around Pune, the seat of Shivaji, the Peshwas and Maharashtrian culture, which traveled around the Deccan during the Maratha period. According to the scriptures, there are thirty-two forms of Ganesha. But there are no hard and fast rules of iconography in his depiction, so the figures are eclectic and creative. The popular forms, as they appear during the Ganesha festival in Mumbai, are very up-to-date. When India exploded its nuclear device, Ganesha was flanked by the bomb! When India went to war, Ganesha appeared with a gun. When Agni was launched, his weapon was a rocket. I have seen cricketer Ganeshas and soldier Ganeshas, the family man with his large extended family of gods and goddesses and the politician supporting the party of his devotees. The huge Ganesha images with their large entourage in Mumbai are a fascinating study of contemporary socio-political developments. And the final procession on the eleventh day is a waystander’s delight. They are the ultimate in “calendar” art.

Many contemporary artists have painted and sculpted their vision of Ganesha. However, it is not the qualities of the God that have attracted them, but his figure: the voluminous elephant head and pot belly, the small, sharp eyes and short legs, the whole presenting a study in contrast, made rich by embellishment. M. Reddeppa Naidu combined his faith and spirituality with graceful lines and soft colour tones. His ink drawings of the god accentuated the anatomy of the deity. P.S. Nandhan used decorative lines to accentuate form and movement. J. Sultan Ali was inspired by tribal art, and produced stocky figures that emphasized “pattern and bold form”, while K. Sreenivasulu was inspired by folk forms and Tanjore painting. Ganesha is a Tanjore painter’s delight, embellished with gold and precious stones. If painting saw inspired lines and movement, sculpture saw changing norms of iconography. B. Vithal created the abstract gold-plated Ganeshas, inspired by the formlessness of the Ashta Vinayaks. P.V. Janakiram used form, texture and wire to create variations of iconographic forms, while artists such as S.P. Jayakar, K.S. Gopal, D. Venkatapathy and M. Senathipathi used metal repoussé. The number of contemporary artists who have painted or sculpted Ganesha is infinite. They have adapted traditional and tantric forms to create uniquely new Ganeshas.


But Ganesha also had an ecological message. The Deccan has always been dependant on rainfall, which was collected in artificial tanks and wells. Every year, the tanks were desilted during the summer months. This had a dual advantage, by which the tanks and wells were maintained, while the landless were given employment during the non-agricultural period. The clay left on the tank beds and outside the wells was used to make the Ganeshas, with eyes made of crab’s eye seeds. After the festival, the Ganeshas were immersed in the local lake, river, tank or well. Being unbaked, the clay would soften and dissolve, becoming one with the well, tank or river bed. The whole cycle was renewed the following year. The sugar cane in his hand represents an important agricultural product. With the combination of the respected elephant figure, the festival was one of ancient India’s methods of using religion to conserve the ecology.

Today’s Ganeshas are baked, made with plaster-of-paris, sometimes even strengthened with cement and RCC. Even an innocuous material like baked clay is eco-unfriendly. When these Ganeshas are immersed in water, they do not dissolve, and we see the ugly and painful sight of Ganeshas hacked to pieces. Worse, toxic paints are used to decorate them. The water is polluted and becomes a toxic hazard. In many places these are the only sources of drinking water. I doubt whether Lokamanya Tilak would have approved of this. Organizers of Ganesh mandalis must not make a beautiful festival into an ecological hazard.

Ganesha is an artist’s inspiration and delight. The Ganesh mandalis have excelled in creativity, now they need to go back to the environmental messages of the past. Ganesha is a celebration of agriculture, water conservation and India’s wildlife. We need to remind ourselves of this sacred tradition even while we celebrate the Ganesha festival.

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