Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The God of Collectibles

Most folks these days are familiar with the Hindu god Ganesha. He’s the god of good luck, the remover of obstacles, the god whose blessing we seek before we embark on a new journey, be it travel or enterprise. And he’s more than that—he’s also the god of success and of new beginnings, the patron of arts and science. For these reasons, Ganesha, or Ganapati (“gun-puth-ee”) as he’s also known, is more than just one of many in the pantheon of Hindu gods. He’s one of the best known and most widely worshipped, so iconic that he’s become an art form. 

There are many legends about Ganesha, but the one I first read about appeared in an old Indian comic book. In that explanation, Ganesha's mother created him independently, trying to form the perfect son, then had him stand guard outside her home as she bathed inside. When her husband, Lord Shiva, returned and found the unknown young man at his front door, he thought it was an intruder and took aim with his trident, cutting Ganesha’s head off. (Side note: As in Greek and Roman mythology, Hindu mythology is filled with gods who have human flaws and weaknesses.)
Later, when Shiva found out that technically Ganesha was his child, he ordered his men to go out and cut the head off the first living thing they found and replace his son’s head. Of course, the first living thing his men found was an elephant, thus the unusual form.

Traditionally, Ganesha is depicted as in the first photo up above. But these days, you’ll find him the subject of about any form of art and in any media. Because of a similarity between the shape of his head and the Sanskrit letter for “om” (or “aum”), that primal sound invoked during prayer or meditation, he’s sometimes depicted in that shape as well.

Another popular expression uses minimal ink strokes, especially a single one. Our family once received a unique gift, a print of Ganesha's head using the letters from the names of our family members. I know someone who creates Ganeshas out of collages of neatly cut paper, known as cutwork art. The images I’ve included in this piece were all handmade by a relative who created hundreds of varied forms of Ganesha over half a century before he passed away last year. They’re in chalk, charcoal, watercolor, oil, ink, pencil, gold foil, you name it. You’ll see one is even in the shape of a hibiscus.

The breadth of creativity and diversity in recreating Ganesha’s image is boundless, and for me, a little addictive. Many Indian homes feature Ganesha collections so I avoid collecting them myself. That is until I find one that’s unique, then all bets are off. That’s an event that happens more and more these days. Ganesha playing various musical instruments, Ganesha dancing, Ganesha reclining, Ganesha standing, Ganesha in profile, modern  Ganesha, traditional Ganesha, bronze or soapstone Ganesha sculptures, tiny Ganesha figurines … the list goes on and on. 

A few years ago, while passing through Idagunji, a tiny village in southern India, I picked up a unique statue made of black stone known as the Idagunji Ganesha. The town is an ancient pilgrimage site where saints were thought to come for penance. Ganesha is said to have prayed there, and at the center of town, there’s a 1,500-year-old temple in his honor, one that attracts thousands of pilgrims each year. In the sculpture, the god is dressed in the style Hindu men wear during pilgrimages, including donning a loincloth and holy thread. He looks more stout than other representations, and there’s a small depression in his forehead, as though he’s wearing the sacred mark  that symbolizes the mind’s eye (the one we use to meditate and attain spiritual enlightenment). He’s carrying a lotus flower in one hand, and his favorite sweet, the modak (a dumpling with a sweet filling), in the other. Here he is, below at right, along with some other little souvenirs from my collection.

Yes, the golden piece in the center is a regular old elephant but my collection extends to those too. Nothing like expanding a godly collection beyond its earthly limits, right?


  1. Thanks for sharing your Ganesha collection! My parents' house is filled with Ganesha statues, but so far I only have two of my own.

    The driver who drove us around on our last trip to India had a Ganesha statuette on the dashboard -- with the breakneck driving conditions in India, I understand why he needed the luck!

  2. Nice post, Supriya. :) I wish I could show you my collection of Lord Ganesha statues. Emerald, shell, blue jade, gold plated, etc etc. My favorite though is a picture of him made of leaves-!/photo.php?fbid=34613741668&set=a.13987226668.33573.670551668&theater.

  3. These pictures want to make me start my own Ganesha collection, Supriya. Such variety! I love the single line drawings. Very clever.

    Gigi, I've seen taxi drivers in Iran with blue eye amulets hanging from their rear-view mirrors. They serve the same purpose and are just as necessary!

  4. Gigi, that's hilarious about your driver! Glad to see Ganesha came through for you. ;)

    Lavanya, loved the leaf picture! The others sound interesting too---one made of shell? Hm...

    Thanks, Heidi. You know, Alli says she has a Ganesha charm on her bracelet. Makes me want to go hunting for one myself...

  5. It's actually shells. :) I will take pictures this weekend. I also wear a small silver Ganesha embeded in Om symbol pendant, which I absolutely love because it's so unique. You've probably have seen it in some of my pics. :)

  6. Is Idagunji your native village ?
    Do you speak Konkani ?
    Did you live in Ghana, Calcutta and Nasik in your youth ?

    Were your parents Shalini and Suresh Idagunji ?