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Of the hundreds of Hindu deities, the elephant-headed god
is among the most beloved. Known as the “Lord of New Beginnings” and
the “Remover of Obstacles,” his familiar image can be found near the
entrance of Hindu homes, temples, shops, restaurants, and even on the
dashboard of cars both in India and here in the United States.
Select any of the highlighted areas on this 9th-century sandstone
image of Ganesha to discover more about him.
In the museum setting, the image of Ganesha is bare stone,
highlighting the beauty of the material and the artistry of the
carving. But in Hindu religious settings, such as in temples and at
festivals, statues of deities are dressed and ornamented. One way
that Hindus serve and show devotion to god is to adorn him. Hindu
gods are also seen as living beings, who would not go around without
clothing in daily life!
On Saturday mornings at the Hindu Temple of Atlanta, an important
Hindu ritual is performed, the abhishekam of Ganesha, in
which chanting priests anoint the god with auspicious, or
“life-affirming” substances such oil, milk, yogurt, honey before
dressing and adorning him with jewels and flowers.
or the side bar to your right to watch a video and learn more about the
abhishekam of Ganesha.
Why does Ganesha have the head of an elephant?
There are many stories of his birth. One tells us that the goddess
created a son from a paste of ground lentils and turmeric
into which she breathed life. In another, she formed Ganesha from
the oil and exfoliated skin from her bath, using water from the
Ganges to give him life. In both stories she created a child to
keep her company because her husband, the great god Shiva, was so
often away meditating in the mountains.
One day, she instructed Ganesha to guard the entrance to their
house so that she could bathe in privacy. While Ganesha was keeping
watch, Shiva returned home, but the dutiful boy did not know who he
was and so refused him entrance. Furious that this unfamiliar child
would forbid him entrance to his own home, Shiva lopped off
Ganesha’s head with his trident.
Devastated, Parvati begged Shiva to restore life to her son, but
the power of the strike had flung the boy’s head far away and it
could not be found. So Shiva sent his attendants (ganas)
to take the head of the first living creature they found, an
elephant, and Shiva used it to return Ganesha to life.
Ganesha sits on a lotus throne. As in other images in Hindu and
Buddhist art, the lotus symbolizes purity, but here it may also
remind viewers that Ganesha is divine, and not mired in the
impurity of human existence.
Like many images in Hindu and Buddhist art, here Ganesha sits on a
lotus throne. The lotus symbolizes purity, but here it may also
remind us that Ganesha is divine and not mired in the impurity of
In his lower right hand, Ganesha holds his broken tusk.
an Indian sage, asked Ganesha to write down the famous Hindu epic,
as he recited it. Believing that a regular pen was not worthy for
such a sacred task, Ganesha broke off one of his own tusks, dipped
it in ink, and used it to write the story. Because he is associated
with writing, learning, and wisdom, students often pray to Ganesha
Taking their name from the Sanskrit word for ball,
are a popular treat in India even today. Made from flour, sugar,
and other flavorings like cardamom and cashew, they are rolled into
balls and cooked in ghee (clarified butter). They are often served
at celebrations of weddings and births, and offered at
festivals—particularly the annual ten-day festival honoring
Ganesha’s birth. Renowned for his immense appetite (notice his
large belly), Ganesha holds a bowl of laddus in his lower left hand
and reaches into it with his trunk.
Children learn to make laddus with their parents from a very young
Here is a recipe
from Rajeswari Vijayanand, who writes the Rak’s Kitchen blog about
Indian food and remembers making them with her mother.
He wears an
or sacred thread, around his waist. In one popular story, Ganesha
had eaten too many sweets, as was often the case. But this time, he
had eaten so many that his stomach burst, and all the sweets
tumbled out. He grabbed a snake from the ground and tied it around
his waist to keep his stomach closed. Ganesha’s upavita is
in the form of a snake.
Abhishekam of Ganesha
Built in the traditional style of South Indian temples, the Hindu
Temple of Atlanta is home to thousands of devotees in the Atlanta
area. Every Saturday morning the priests of the temple perform an
ancient ritual known by the Sanskrit word
Originally performed on kings ascending the throne, it was later
adopted in temples to honor deities.
As you watch the video, look for the following:
A priest offers prayers in Sanskrit as he anoints Ganesha with oil,
bananas, milk, yogurt, brown sugar, honey, orange juice, white sugar,
turmeric paste and turmeric water, vermilion, and flowers. See if you
can identify each substance as it is applied. In between each
application, Ganesha is bathed with water. The sounds of bells and
the chanting of the priest accompanies the ritual.
A flame offering
is held on a metal plate, which the
priest circulates around the deity. He then offers the flame to
devotees who cup their hands over it and then raise them to their
foreheads, transferring the blessing from the deity to themselves.
Offerings of fruit that have been given to the deity are then given
back to devotees, having been blessed
At the end of the abhishekam, the doors to the shrine are
closed for a time and the priest dresses and adorns Ganesha with
flowers and jewelry
Then the doors are reopened
for worshippers to see god in his full glory.
In India, Hindus celebrate Ganesha’s birthday with a ten-day festival
Its annual timing, during the
Hindu month of Bahdra, is determined by the waxing moon, and falls
sometime between mid-August and mid-September.
In 2013, ceramic artist Diane Kempler, a former Professor of Visual
Arts at Emory University, traveled to Mumbai to experience the
Ganesha Chaturthi Festival in the village of Pen. There she observed
potters at work creating clay statues of the deity
for the festival and witnessed the public and private rituals in
which they are used.
As you watch the video, notice the men who make the statues and the
women who paint them, the ways in which the statues are dressed and
adorned, and the offerings and prayers calling upon Ganesha to be
present in them. At the conclusion of the festival, watch as statues
are taken to the coast for
immersion in water, when the deity departs.