The elephant head with a human body has been one of the most enduring images of Hinduism around the world. In India, home to Ganesha and Hinduism, no idol of any kind has been subjected to such avid and extreme artistic interpretations, which in other words is a measure of his immense popularity. The most popular ones at the turn of the last century were abstract sculptures of not more than two inches, easily identified by the tubular bulge that runs from the head to the stomach – actually the elephant’s trunk. Ganesha is one of the five prime Hindu deities, the others being Brahma, Vishnu, Durga and Shiva, who is Ganesha’s father.
Ganesha idols kicked off a mass hysteria, unprecedented in modern India, on 21 September 1995. A man in New Delhi (India’s capital) dreamt that Ganesha was craving for milk. He woke up and just before dawn went to a temple nearby where he requested the priest for a spoonful of milk. The moment the man placed a spoon at the sculpture’s mouth, the milk vanished. By noon the same day, the entire country was witness to devotees running to the nearest temple or statue and offering milk. By evening, everyone who offered milk insisted that Ganesha statues consumed the milk. The frenzy ended the same night and with time, rationalists attributed it to normal capillary action. But for millions, the phenomenon remains a once-in-a- lifetime miracle.
Ganesha is the son of Goddess Parvati and Lord Shiva, also known as the Eternal Couple. According to a famous legend Parvati, while bathing, created a boy out of the dirt of her body and asked him to stand guard while she bathed. Soon after, when Lord Shiva arrived he was surprised to find a stranger at his door. Worse, this stranger would not allow Shiva to enter his own home. An enraged Shiva struck off the boy’s head. When Parvati emerged, she was grief-stricken. Shiva promised to make amends and sent his troops with a single order – to come back with the head of any sleeping being, provided the head was facing north. The troops found a sleeping elephant and returned with its severed head. Shiva attached the head to the body and named him Ganapati, which means the leader of his troops.
There is another famous legend that deals with Ganesha’s huge belly. The God of Wealth and also the Treasurer of the Gods, Kubera, wanted to show his wealth to the Eternal Couple and so invited them to dinner. Shiva and Parvati declined his invitation and instead, asked him to feed Ganesha. Kubera retorted that he could feed several children like Ganesha. An unperturbed Ganesha, however, sat down to eat. He devoured everything that was placed before him and also the food meant for Kubera’s armies.
After that, Ganesha started eating the very palace. When Kubera stared at him in wonder, Ganesha reminded him that he had promised his parents to feed him and that he was now ready to eat him, too. Kubera was shaken and rushed to Shiva for help. Shiva gave him a fistful of rice and told him to offer it to Ganesha with humility. By the time Kubera returned, Ganesha’s stomach was full. When Kubera offered the food with humility, Ganesha accepted it and expressed satisfaction.
Ganesh Chaturthi is celebrated in Hindu homes as among the most sacred of Hindu festivals. Idols smaller than an inch rising to heights of 30 feet and above are installed on specially erected and beautifully decorated pedestals covered by mandaps (tents). He is mostly seen astride a mouse – symbolising swift action and presence of mind. He is also portrayed in myriad forms. Ganesh mandaps are a common sight during this festive period. Mumbai in Maharashtra and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh install the tallest and the maximum number of idols in the world during Ganesh Chaturthi.
Devotees seek his blessings predominantly for education, wisdom, literature and the fine arts. At the end of ten days of festivities, the idol is taken out in a huge procession and immersed in the sea, river or lake.
Ganesha is the integer of the Creator, the Sustainer and the Destroyer in Hindu religion. Devotees pray to him for intelligence and success in their ventures. Ganesha is also worshipped before the start of any enterprise. This is because he is the Lord of Obstacles and the Destroyer of Obstacles, and this explains why every other vehicle in India has a small idol of his right above the dashboard.