Ganesha Around the World

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This blog was originally published as an article titled ‘The Benevolent Ganesha Abroad’ by Dr. G.B. Deglurkar, in Maharashtra Unlimited, Volume 4 – Issue 3. The photos are courtesy of Shakuntala Jagannathan.

Ganesha, the elephant-headed god cuts a popular figure, not just in India. He has remained a familiar figure in the art of South-East Asian countries. However his depictions differ from one region to the other and from the Indian original. Ganesha’s images coming from the countries like Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam are unusual and spectacular. His imagery is rich and varied especially in South East Asia. Ganesha’s images are also found in China and Japan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Khotan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Borneo and even in Mexico.

Ganesha in Indonesia

Ganesha’s images were very popular in Indonesia up to 15th century or so. The old Javanese manuscript known as Smaradahana narrating Ganesha’s birth says that he was born with an elephant head originally. According to the tradition that is in vogue in Bali, the ceremony called rishigana is performed to appease Ganesha whenever disaster strikes. Ganesha is also referred to in the Javanese texts known as Nangluk and Bharata-yuddha, though in a different context. In practice there is no difference between the images of the Indonesian Ganesha and the Indian ones. He holds a battle axe, rosary, broken tusk and a sweet bowl. In a few cases, the god is also seen with attributes like pasha, Padma, shankha, etc. Unlike Indian images he is invariably shown four armed. He is shown either seated or standing. However there is no dancing Ganesha to be met with.

Interestingly, Indonesia presents a Tantrik Ganesha which is rarely seen in India. This Tantrik Ganesha is characterized by skull ornaments adorning him right from the head-dress to the pedestal. We come across a large number of Ganesha images belonging to the Central and Eastern Javanese period. They are with a tusk, rosary, battle-axe and an empty bowl and are seated with both legs bent horizontally the soles of the feet touching each other, a notable special feature.

An image of Ganesha from 1239 CE found at Bara belonging to Sangasari period is seen protected from the rear by a demonic face on the back of its head ( shown above). While an image from Chandi Singsari is seen with skulls on its pedestal. The image is shown seated in maharajalilasana. A similar though standing figure is seen at Karang Kates. In Bali, Ganesha is generally found standing, with the third eye and the thread of snake. We come across at Djembaran in South Bali, an enthroned Ganesha, surrounded by flames, suggesting that he is according to the Balian concept, a protector of royalty. In a way it is a unique depiction of the god.

Though Indonesia is an Islamic country politically, it seems that it is dominated by Hindu culture which is evident when one comes across a currency note bearing Ganesha’s image on it. Probably this is the only country in the world boasting the image of Ganesha in such a way.

Ganesha in Cambodia

Cambodia abounds with Hindu gods and temples. Ganesha from Angkor Borei along with other gods finds mention in an epigraph of the 7th century CE. Here in this country we find temples dedicated to Ganesha. They are referred to in the inscriptions of 9th and 10th centuries. The god here is known as ‘Prah Kenes’. At some places he is seen along with Shiva and Parvati. Cambodian Ganesha images of the pre-Khmer period are with wide fan-like ears, no neck, no head-dress, no pot-belly, two armed and with his trunk turned to the left. In those of the Khmer period, he is shown wearing a conical crown.

Ganesha without a pot belly – Cambodia, 8th Century CE
Ganesha without a pot belly – Cambodia, 8th Century CE – Now in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Ganesha images in Cambodia are mostly two-armed which are placed on the knees holding various attributes. His trunk is hanging straight and is coiled at the end. It is also seen turning outward and upward as seen in Chinese Turkestan, Bali and in China. Pra Kenes here, is never obese, he is rarely shown seated with legs crossed. There are hundreds of images in stone and bronze suggesting his popularity in this country. However, the mouse, the vehicle of Ganesha is not seen with the god in Cambodia. A typical two-armed Khmer Ganesha (12th-13th CE.) seated in paryankasana wearing anklets and a snake- yajnopawita tied near the left ear with the snake hood raised, is a special feature of Cambodian Ganesha. Wonderfully enough several inscriptions here record gifts of slaves among several other things, to Ganesha though we do not find any evidence of his cult.

The Ganesha (Pra Kenes) image from Turol Phak Kin is remarkable in more than one feature. It is seated with the legs crossed at the ankles, the left over the right, which is unusual. It is almost nude holding an object in the right hand placed on the knee while the left holding the bowl is raised with a bend in the elbow. His head is sunken between the shoulders and the trunk makes an unusual curve to reach the bowl, the ears are large, the staring eyes are round and on the forehead is the third eye.

A rare four-armed standing image of Ganesha is interesting as it is holding in its upper hands the Vaishnava emblems like the disc and the conch. It belongs to pre-Angkorian period.

Probably from Cambodia, according to the author of ‘Ganasha’, the god travelled to Mexico and the Central America for Ganesha is seen in the form of Virakosa in rare sculptures there.

In Champa, as in Cambodia, the Shiva cult was popular. In one of the Mi-son sanctuaries near Shiva’s shrine was noticed a dignified and very impressive standing image of Ganesha. This image of Ganesha has lost two of his four hands. He holds a bowl in his normal left hand and probably a leafy twig in the right which is broken while the image was being shifted to the Tourane Museum. Though bare to the waist he is adorned with an ornate necklace and serpent- sacred thread. His head is bare and eyes are small and true to life. His ears are large and his trunk conspicuously straight, but turns to the left at the end to take sweets from the bowl held in the left hand.

Champa is in possession of a seated Ganesha holding ‘pinceau’ in his uplifted hand indicating him as a scribe to Vyasa. He is bare to the waist, wearing necklace and the sacred thread. Interestingly he has a third eye and his head is covered by a net head-dress with flattened lotus-flower on it.

Ganesha – Cambodia, 8th CE
Ganesha – Cambodia, 8th CE – Now in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

In a panel Ganesha is shown seated along with Shiva. He is two-armed holding probably tusk in his right hand while the other hand is empty. His proboscis rather small turns to the left, and protuberance is seen between the eyes. Interestingly he is flanked by acolytes; the one to the right holds an axe which makes him as an ayudhapurusha, the other holds a parasol indicating the royalty of the god.

Curiously  enough when he is in the company of other gods he is called Ganesha and when with Shiva as his attendant he becomes Shri Vinayaka (inscriptions at Po Nagar, etc.) indicating his importance. In fact an inscription at Mi so’n there is mention of a ShriVinayaka-Vjaya.

Ganesha in Borneo

Ganesha travelled to Borneo, the farthest point to the east. There, in a cave at Kombeng, a four armed Ganesha is seen among other gods. Two of his attributes, axe and rosary, can be identified. He has a straight trunk, protuberance between the eyebrows and a Jatamukuta.

Ganesha in Thailand

He went to this land in the 6th century CE when the Hindu Mon dynasty was ruling there. The kings of this dynasty built several temples to Ganesha. The images in the ancient art of Ayuthia are particularly noteworthy. A beautiful bronze from this place represents Ganesha seated in the Maharajalila pose, with a serpent- sacred thread, the mouse under his uplifted right leg, the left being folded. The skilfully modeled head well placed on the shoulders and the trunk is of unusual suppleness. The staring eyes are round. A special attractive feature is the arrangement of hands. From the shoulders to the elbow, there is only one arm; but at the elbow, the arm branches in to two. Both of his tusks are intact and he holds a radish in his hand placed on the knee.

Ganesha – Indonesia in Chandi Prambanan
Ganesha – Indonesia in Chandi Prambanan

Ganesha in Myanmar

As we know Hinduism was very popular in this country during the 5th-7th centuries of the Current Era. In southern Myanmar several images in a role of the Remover of Obstacles are found while in the northern part Ganesha is taken as a guardian deity. A noteworthy four armed image of Ganesha seated in the padmasana holding an axe, rosary and conch, placing the remaining hand on the lap, is seen in a Brahmanical temple at Pagan. An interesting feature to be met here is of a crocodile carved on his pedestal, and a tortoise and fish to the right and left of the pedestal in bas- relief. Ganesha is known as ‘Maha-pienne’ here and is still worshipped.

Ganesha in China

Even today Ganesha is a familiar figure in Japan and Mongolia, but is rarely seen in China and Korea. Of course this was not the case up to 9th century China. His first appearance in China is encountered in the sixth century at Kung-hsien. He sits in vajrasana holding a lotus in the right hand and either a sweetmeat ball or jewel in the left.

At Tun-huang, Ganesha is shown with Kartikeya, his brother. Ganesha is shown wearing pleated lower garment and flowing scarf, seated in ardhaparyankasana carrying a broken tusk in his left hand and a ball of sweetmeats in the right. He is seen lifting it with his trunk turned in that direction.

Ganesha of the T’ang Dynasty: There are two very interesting images belonging to the period of this dynasty. One of them is seen on a bronze censer whose lotus bud finial shoulders a kneeling figure of Ganesha. It is portrayed with grace and refinement. He carries a jewel in his raised hands in an attitude of offering.

The second image, now on display in the Cleveland Museum of Art, is depicted as a powerful figure seated in wamalalitasana on a simhasana. Clad in a dhoti, this Ganesha has a robust physique. His third eye is very prominent. He appears as a god of wealth as he carries a flaming pearl in his left hand while the right one he lifts toward his trunk.

Ganesha is also depicted in China as a Buddhist guardian. In that appearance he is known as Hsiang-shen wang (elephant spirit king).

Ganesha in Japan

Vinayaka, as he is known in Japan, was introduced in this country in the 9th century by the Buddhist monk, Kobo or Koloho Daishi. The Japanese Vinayaka holds the broken tusk, radish and axe as per necessity. In his Vajra-Vinayaka form besides any of the three referred to above he carries Vajra, that is, thunderbolt. In another form known as Kaku-zen-cho he is triple headed, each one having three eyes. He holds a sword, radish, scepter and modaka.

Kangi-Ten: The Deva of Bliss
Kangi-Ten: The Deva of Bliss

Kangi-ten (deva of bliss): This is the dual image known in Japanese as Kangi-ten. It shows two elephant-headed figures embracing their hands clasped behind each other’s back. This type of Ganesha-form came to Japan originally from China. This is a secret esoteric form of the god (Ganesha) Kangi-ten derived from the Tantric cult based on the Yoga doctrine of the union of the Individual with the Universal spirit.

Ganesha in Afghanistan and Central Asia

In the ancient period Ganesha was known in Afghanistan as Maha Vinayaka. We know that this deity traverse Asia along with many other deities, both Hindu and Buddhist. One such image of Ganesha of early 6th century is now seen placed in the Dargah Pir Rattan Nath at Kabul. The inscription thereon runs like this—‘This great and beautiful Maha Vinayaka was consecrated by the renowned Shahi king, the illustrious Shahi Khingala.’ Though all his four arms are broken yet the traces of the broken tusk and the trunk turning towards left is visible. His sacred thread ends in a knot which looks like a snake’s hood. The flat coronet on his head and a robust body reveal Gandharan influence.

Another image of Ganesha comes from Sakar Dhar, (north of Kabul). His broken left tusk enables us to identify him as Ekadanta. He has fan-like ears. Though he has lost his upper hands, the lower two are seen placed on the heads of two gana-s reminding us the ayudhapurushas of the Gupta period.

From Kabul Ganesha went further north to Khotan (Chinese Turkestan) where we come across with a painting of this god clad in a tiger skin and in a tight fitting trousers. He is four-armed holding radish in one of them. He wears a coronet and not a crown. The painted Ganesha figures also are available from the rock-cut temples of Bezaklik and at Khaklik, 120km. from Khotan. At the earlier place he is six armed holding the Sun, the Moon, a banner and a modaka with a nimbus behind his head and at the later place two figures appear, one of an emaciated Ganesha and the other of a haloed Ganesha, both carry radish, modaka and the goad.

Ganesha in Sri Lanka

It is but obvious to have many images of the god from this island state for Ganesha was and still is a popular god here. At Polonnaruva a very attractive four-armed image is seen holding an axe, noose and a modaka. It is difficult to trace any striking and special feature of the figures here, as noted from other countries referred to above. However he still remains a very popular god in Sri Lanka.

Finally, all said and done above, “no divinity, either Hindu or Buddhist, says Alice Getty, has had so varied a ‘career’. From a humble village deity worshipped in connection with the harvest, it rose to unbelievable heights, surpassing the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; in fact, equal to Brahman itself.” He is the one who traversed practically many continents like none other divinity crossing the lengthy borders at all sides of this vast country-India.

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