Explore the imagery and symbolism associated with Ganesha and gain an insight into some of the most popular stories surrounding him.
Ganesha is one of the most popular gods of the Hindu pantheon and he is both the creator of obstacles (Vighneshwara) and the remover of them (Vighnaharta) and is therefore worshipped by the human and the divine.
Ganesha is the most beloved of all deities of the Hindu pantheon. He is accepted by various cults and has even entered the realm of tribal and folk gods. The large pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses is mainly divided into Shaiva (follower of God Shiva), Vaishnava (follower of God Vishnu) and Shakta (follower of the Mother Goddess). Ganesha is worshipped by all of them. He is also popular with the Jains and Buddhists.
In general, the images of gods and goddesses follow the iconographic specifications given in the ancient shilpa texts but Ganesha is an exception. Through several centuries his popularity has prevailed amongst all his devotees and continues to be greater than before. He is also conceived according to the worshipper’s desire and hence Ganesha is depicted as a cricketer, football player, astronaut, as well as in the form of popular deities like Saibaba, Tirupati and Krishna among others.
One popular story tells how the youth Ganesha was created from the dust and oil rubbed from the body of his mother, the goddess Parvati, as she took her bath. When her husband, Shiva, returned home he found the young boy guarding his wife’s chamber and jealously cut off his head. To placate the distraught Parvati, Shiva brought the boy back to life and agreed to replace the boy’s head with the head of the first living being his followers encountered – which was an elephant.
In his role as the creator of obstacles, Ganesha guards the entrance to his father Shiva’s chambers. A story tells how Ganesha even once refused Parashurama (a form of the god Vishnu) entry to see Shiva and the hot-tempered Parashurama broke Ganesha’s tusk with a swing of his axe. Following this violent act, Shiva and Parvati advised Parashurama to honour Ganesha and obtain his forgiveness.
Many Hindu gods are associated with an animal which they ride (known as their vehicle). Ganesha gained his animal vehicle, the rat, after fighting the demon Gajamukha. Rather than kill the demon, Ganesha cursed him, throwing his right tusk at Gajamukha, and transforming him into a rat. He then mounted the rat, keeping it forever under his control.
Ganeshchaturthi: the festival of Ganesha
In the state of Maharashtra in western India the festival of Ganesha is celebrated in the month of Bhadrapada (August–September). Thousands of clay statues are worshipped in households and a similar number of huge images of Ganesha are made especially for the public festival and worshipped for ten days. The festival comes to an end with the immersion of Ganesha images in lakes, rivers and the sea. The worshippers accompany the statues in huge processions and chant the mantra: ‘Oh Ganesha, we salute you, please come back early next year, we feel lonely without you’.
Celebrating Ganesha is a Spotlight tour by the British Museum.
The exhibition will tour across the UK from June 2015 for two years to the following museums and galleries:
Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth
16 June – 20 September 2015
Museum of Oxford
26 September 2015 – 12 January 2016
Cartwright Hall, Bradford
February – May 2016
Bowes Museum, County Durham
June – September 2016
February – May 2017
Brent Museum, London
May – August 2017
This exhibition was curated by Manisha Nene of CSMVS (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) in Mumbai, who participated in the International Training Programme (ITP).
The ITP is a chance for the British Museum and its UK partner museums to host museum and heritage professionals from across the world, promoting the mutual sharing of knowledge, skills and experience.
In this display Manisha Nene has brought together objects from the British Museum collection and explained them in the context of the annual Ganesha festival in Mumbai, known as Ganeshchaturthi.