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Of the hundreds of Hindu deities, the elephant-headed god Ganesha 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.

Click here or the side bar to your right to watch a video and learn more about the abhishekam of Ganesha.


Like his father, Shiva , Ganesha has a third or “inner” eye on his forehead, associated with higher consciousness.


Why does Ganesha have the head of an elephant? There are many stories of his birth. One tells us that the goddess Parvati 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 human existence.


In his lower right hand, Ganesha holds his broken tusk. Vyasa , an Indian sage, asked Ganesha to write down the famous Hindu epic, the Mahabharata , 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 before exams.


Taking their name from the Sanskrit word for ball, laddus 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 age. Here is a recipe from Rajeswari Vijayanand, who writes the Rak’s Kitchen blog about Indian food and remembers making them with her mother.


In his upper left hand, he holds an axe to remove obstacles in the paths of his devotees.


In his upper right hand, he holds a mala . From the Sanskrit word for garland, a mala is a set of beads used for keeping count while reciting or chanting mantras, or sacred utterances.


He wears an upavita , 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 abhishekam . 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 (arthi ) 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 (prasad ).

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 (alamkara ). 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 known as Ganesha Chaturthi . 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 (murti ) 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 visarjan , immersion in water, when the deity departs.

Site Credits

Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University
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