This appealing childlike Ganesha, with full rounded stomach, chubby thighs, and plump buttocks, sports a charming twinkle in his eyes. His trunk is already into his favorite sweet, the modaka or laddu, held is in his left hand, while his right hand holds his broken tusk. Created during the twelfth century by a talented artist who clearly related to child Ganesha in a special way, the image captures the essence and charm of an infant. This is not a solemn Ganesha whose image is seen in many temples, but an enchanting, child-like figure who continues to have appeal in Tamil Nadu. The imagery appears to reflect a genre of literature unique to Tamil Nadu, known as pillai-Tamil or “child-Tamil,” in which entire poems are addressed to king or god imagined as an infant. One among the early poems in this mode was composed by Chola court poet, Ottakuttar, on emperor Kulottunga II [1133-1150] imagined as an infant.
Much beloved by Indians of varied religious faiths, Ganesha is the god of beginnings who removes all obstacles that might prevent smooth passage of your undertaking, and blesses its successful completion. He is invoked even today at the start of any new venture, large or small, from constructing a new house to making sweets for a festival, from undertaking a journey to writing an exam paper, and especially on New Year’s Day, when new account books are commenced.
In Chola times, a bronze of Ganesha was part of every festival, usually preceding and heralding the main image of Shiva in one or other of his manifestations. One important moment of worship, directed solely at Ganesha, was a special festival dedicated to him as the remover of all obstructions. It was to precede the major ten-day annual festival at Chola temples, still celebrated today, and known as Brahmotsavam (Brahma-utsavam), that renews the entire temple’s sacredness. It is an event of crucial significance that, according to a mid-twelfth century ritual text, “Procedures for the Great Festival” [Mahotsava vidhi], should follow the Ganesha festival. The text addresses the chief priests of Shiva temples, instructing them to bathe and honor Ganesha, present him with modaka sweets, fried edibles, and other good things to eat, and ask him to ensure that there be no obstructions to the Brahmotsavam festival.
Despite his importance, Ganesha’s origins are shrouded in mystery. For many, he is the first son of Shiva and Parvati. In explaining his elephant head, myths speak of Shiva unknowingly beheading him, finding Parvati inconsolable, and replacing the head with that of the first creature he saw – an elephant. Ganesha is also the clever one, and an oft-told story narrates a competition between him and his younger brother, Skanda or Kartikkeya, in which Shiva and Parvati promised a prize to the one who circled the world first. Skanda set out immediately on his peacock mount, while Ganesha got onto his rat mount in leisurely fashion, circled his parents, and claimed the prize because Shiva and Parvati constituted the whole world!
For many devotees, Ganesha stands alone with little connection to Shiva and Parvati. His shrewd intellect and talent for ingenuity were, for instance, responsible for sage Vyasa selecting Ganesha as the scribe to whom he would dictate the Mahabharata epic. His worship takes on a number of regional variations; for instance, in most of India, Ganesha is considered to be a bachelor, but in South India, Ganesha is visualized as having two wives, Siddhi and Buddhi. He may have entered the pantheon late but Ganesha’s popularity, no doubt due to such endearing images as this twelfth-century bronze, spread rapidly and grew steadily throughout South Asia.
Dr. Vidya Dehejia
Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian and South Asian Art