Ganesh Chaturthi - The Origins of the Ganesha Festival

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    Ganesha or Ganpati, India’s beloved elephant god is revered by millions of Indians. As per Hindu beliefs, Ganesha is considered as a ‘remover of obstacles’, and as a result Ganesha idols as well as Ganesha Paintings , can be found in homes across India.

    Ganesh Chaturthi, also known as Vinayaka Chaturthi or Ganesh Utsav is a vibrant and cherished Hindu festival that celebrates the birth of Ganesha. As the Ganesh Chaturthi 2023 approaches, we delve into the rich history of Ganesh worship, tracing its origins, exploring its significance, and looking at Ganesha in Indian art.

    The Origin Story of Ganesha
    According to traditional Hindu beliefs, Goddess Parvati created Ganesha out of sandalwood paste and brought him to life. She designated him the guardian of her chambers, instructing him not to allow anyone inside while she bathed. When Lord Shiva, Parvati's husband, tried to enter, Ganesha, unaware of his identity, blocked his path. Enraged, Shiva severed Ganesha's head. Upon realizing his mistake, Shiva replaced Ganesha's head with that of an elephant, granting him a unique appearance.

    Oldest known Ganesha
    Historically, elephants were seen as symbols of power and prestige in India. Among the oldest surviving representations of an elephant are the elephant seals and clay elephant heads found at Harappan sites, going back 2500 BCE.
    But it is in a cave on a hill in Udayagiri, Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh in central India, that historians and archaeologists believe is the oldest known representation of Ganesha. This ancient sculpture dates back to 5th century CE and is believed to have been created during the rule of the Gupta dynasty, which covered vast swathes of India.

    Udayagiri caves consist of about twenty Hindu and Jain caves that originate from the Gupta period. Among these, Cave no. 6 is particularly significant. Inside this cave, there is a depiction of a chubby Ganesha accompanied by mother goddesses, known as ‘Matrikas’.

    Ganesha from Afghanistan
    One of the most fascinating Ganesha idols is the ‘Gardez Ganesha’, a beautiful sculpture found in Gardez in Afghanistan. What makes this Ganesha idol so unique is that it shows a distinct Greek influence, with a well toned body and flowy robes, similar to that of Greek gods.

    The Gardez Ganesha was discovered in 1956 by the Indian archaeological delegation to Afghanistan who came across a large idol of a Ganesha in the Pir Ratan Nath dargah near Kabul. It had originally come from the town of Gardez, around 70 km from Kabul. A short inscription at the bottom of this idol states that the ‘image of the Maha Vinayaka was installed by Maharajadhiraja Sahi Khingala in his eight regnal year’.

    Today, this magnificent Ganesha idol still remains in Afghanistan.

    Peshwas and Ganesh Chaturthi
    Ganesh Chaturthi or Vinayaka Chaturthi became a popular ‘State’ festival under the Maratha Peshwas who ruled large swathes of Western and Central India in the 18th century. The Peshwas ruled from their capital Pune, and a group of eight Ganesha temples in and around Pune region gained prominence as ‘Ashtavinayaka’ or the ‘Eight Vinayakas’. The ‘State’ celebration of Ganesha Chaturthi ended in 1818, after the British East India company captured Pune and sent the last Peshwa into exile.

    It was the noted Indian Freedom fighter and nationalist leader Lokmanya Tilak who revived the public celebration of Ganesha festival or ‘Ganpati Utsav’ in 1894, as a way of rekindling nationalism against colonial rule. Since then, it has become a very popular festival not only in India, but also among the Indian diaspora around the world.

    Ganesha in Indian Art
    Ganesha or Ganapati is not just a popular Hindu god, but has also inspired art for centuries. Traditional Indian art showcases Lord Ganesha through his iconic attributes, such as his elephant head, potbelly, broken tusk, and four arms. The elephant head represents wisdom and intelligence, while the potbelly symbolises his ability to digest the sorrows of the world. Each of his four arms holds a unique object, such as a modak (sweet), a noose, an axe, or a lotus, all of which hold profound meanings in Hinduism. We look at some of the cultural traditions that depict Ganesha in paintings and sculptures–

    Kerala Murals
    The temples of Kerala, a state in South India, are known for their rich tradition of Mural paintings. The Kerala Murals dig deep into tales from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and depict deities like Vishnu, Shiva and Ganesha in all their glory. Traditionally, the colour palette consists of just five colours – Panchavarna or red, yellow, green, black and white and the colours are derived from natural sources. Below is a Kerala Mural painting of Ganesha - Find a selection of Kerala murals here.

    Pattachitra is a popular form of painting from Odisha, in eastern India. It was traditionally practised by artists living in the village of Raghurajpur, near the famous temple town of Puri. The Pattachitra were cloth paintings, traditionally brought by pilgrims to Puri, as souvenirs. The Pattachitras depicted local Hindu deities like Lord Jagannatha, as well as others like Durga and Ganesha. This is an exquisite traditional Pattachitra painting of Ganesha – and you can find a collection of handmade Pattachitras depicting Ganesha.

    Apart from paintings, Ganesha was also extremely popular in tribal art and metalware. Dhokra is a metal casted art that uses the ancient lost-wax casting technique. This art was traditionally practised by tribes across Central and Eastern India. The beautiful Ganesha idols made through the traditional Dokhra techniques have become extremely popular home décor accessories today.

    The enduring popularity of Ganesha worship and the Ganesha Chaturthi festival is a tapestry woven with ancient beliefs, historical developments, and cultural expressions, reflecting the enduring significance of Lord Ganesha as a beloved deity who symbolises the removal of obstacles and the bestowal of blessings.

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