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The Big Read « Bali « The Story of Ganesha ~ Bali's Hindu Elephant God

From India, Tibet and Cambodia to Bali. The legends, stories and history of the Hindu Elephant God Ganesha – Ganesh – Lord of Learning and Remover of Obstacles.

The Hindu Elephant God Ganesha guards a Hindu temple in Bali, Indonesia

The Hindu elephant god Ganesha guards a Hindu temple in Bali, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

ON THE LITTLE INDONESIAN ISLAND OF BALI, LORD GANESHA is everywhere. One of the most recognisable Hindu gods outside of India, he's easy to spot: the benign elephant head on top of a chubby, boyish body protects houses and adorns Bali's temples from north to south.

A gold-painted statue of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha at a stone carver's workshop in Sanur, Bali, Indonesia

A gold-painted statue of Ganesha the Hindu elephant god at a stone carver's workshop in Sanur, Bali, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

Who is Ganesha, the Elephant God?

Ganesha – also spelled Ganesh or Ganesa, and known as Vinayaka, Ganapati and Pillaiyar – is the Hindu God of Good Fortune who offers prosperity and success to all who invoke him.

As Lord of Beginnings and the Remover of Obstacles, he's the first to call on before the undertaking of a new task or business. He also has his flip-side: too arrogant, proud or selfish, and he will place obstacles in your path.

Topless women join to create an elephant in a traditional Balinese painting at the ARMA Museum, Ubud

Topless Balinese women intertwine to create an early representation of Ganesha as a simple elephant. (Courtesy of the Agung Rai Museum of Art, Ubud, Bali)

From India to Bali, his image is everywhere – often facing the entrance to a house or temple to keep out the unworthy. Early depictions show him simply as an elephant. The Ganesh we know today has the familiar paunch and elephant head, and normally has four arms.

Some artists only give him two arms – others up to 16 – but in his four-armed incarnation he often clutches his broken tusk in his lower-right hand with a laddoo sweet in the lower-left which he tastes with his trunk. In his upper-right he carries an axe, mace or spiked stick, and in his upper-left a rosary, noose or lily.

On Bali, you'll often see his lower-right hand turned toward his audience in a gesture of abhaya mudra – or protection and fearlessness.

A painted Lord Ganesha statue protects a Hindu home in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

A painted Lord Ganesha statue protects a Hindu home in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

A well-travelled elephant

Ganesha certainly got around. A favorite of Asian traders seeking new markets – and praying for success along the way – the elephant deity left his over-sized footprints from Tibet to Japan.

As a Buddhist god in his own right, he evolved first into Vinayaka, and later into Nritta Ganapati – the Dancing Ganesha – as he trekked northwards from India to Nepal and Tibet.

Painting of Ganesha as the dancing red Maharakta Ganapati from Tibet

Painting of Ganesha as the dancing red Maharakta Ganapati from Tibet.

In Buddhist Tibet, with its strong tantric leanings, Vinayaka transformed into both destroyer and creator of obstacles as Maha Rakta Ganapati – the Buddhist monk and teacher Ngorchen Konchog Lhundrup describes him in the 16th century as fierce and scarlet-red with twelve hands, two of which hold skullcaps filled with human flesh and blood.

In Myanmar, where Mahayana Buddhism had taken root, images of Ganesha were unearthed from the 5th and 6th centuries. In seventh-century Buddhist China, he was seen as an obstacle creator who had to be tamed with offerings.

In Cambodia, bronze and stone statues found in excavations suggest that Ganesh arrived there in the 6th or 7th century – his twelve hands reduced to two, and only slightly pot-bellied from his long years on the road.

The Hindu elephant god Ganesha in 7th century Cambodia

Seventh-century statues of Ganesha the Hindu elephant god in Cambodia. (Source: Public Domain)

Lord Ganesh appears in Vietnam, before taking the sea-voyage with his Buddhist guardians to Japan. By the 9th century in Japan he had been promoted to principal deity in Shingon Buddhism and renamed Kangiten or Binayaka-ten.

And as Kangiten he holds a more erotic role in modern-day Japan. Worshipped by young Japanese couples as a symbol of conjugal bliss, the iconography of Ganesha's most eastern transformation shows him embracing an elephant-headed female form – love at last for our adaptable, globe-trotting elephant.

The elephant god Ganesh as Shingon Buddhism's Kangiten in a lover's embrace, Japan

The Hindu elephant god Ganesh as Shingon Buddhism's Kangiten in a lover's embrace, Japan.

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Ganesha in Indonesia

Indonesia's historical ties with India and Hinduism are centuries old.

Scholars believe that Hindu influence on the archipelago can be traced back as early as 78 AD. By 414 AD there were at least two schools of Hinduism on the island of Java – and by the 4th and 8th centuries, Hindu kingdoms had taken root in East Kalimantan and West and Central Java.

Twelth century statue of Ganesa in Central Java, Indonesia

Twelth-century statue of Ganesha in Central Java, Indonesia.

Wherever Hindu merchants sailed, the elephant god followed. A seated, four-armed Ganesha holding a broken tusk, a garland and bowl of sweets – thought to be from the 8th century – was found in Chandi Banon Temple in Central Java. A 13th century Ganesha statue from Bara in East Java shows him in his more tantric, Southeast Asian form as both Creator and Destroyer of Obstacles.

Even earlier visits were paid to these far-away islands. In Indonesian Kalimantan on the vast island of Borneo, 5th century inscriptions suggest that this was the easternmost limit reached by Ganesha. Kalimantan's Goa Gunung Kombeng, also from the 5th century, boasts a four-armed Ganesh along with his father Lord Shiva and his mother Durga, the witch.

The Balinese-Hindu Elephant God: Dewa Ganesa on Hindu Bali

In India, Ganesh is usually paired with Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity.

On Hindu Bali, the elephant god is more often coupled with Dewi Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning, Music and the Arts. Ganesh's role as protector is also more pronounced on this little Indonesian resort island – he can be seen, more stern-faced than usual, sitting at the gates of temple after temple obstructing the path of Bali's unseen army of demons.

Dewa Ganesa, the Balinese Lord Ganesha, with symbol of Shiva in Bali, Indonesia

Dewa Ganesa – the Balinese Lord Ganesha – with the symbol of Shiva the Destroyer in Bali, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

It didn't take the deity long to make the short jump from Java to Bali. Ten minutes' south of Ubud is the famous Goa Gajah, or Elephant Cave – inside this dark, sculpted, natural temple is an 11th century stone carving of Ganesha – known on Bali as Dewa Ganesa.

The Pelinggih Sang Hyang Ganesa Shrine on Menjangan Island, Bali

A bigger, elephant-sized footprint still is the Pelinggih Sang Hyang Ganesa shrine on the tiny island of Menjangan, a stone's throw off Bali's northwest coast. Dedicated to India's Elephant God of Learning, it is dominated by a mammoth, all-white statue of Dewa Ganesa. If you're on Bali, put it on your bucket list.

The coastal Pelinggih Sang Hyang Ganesha shrine on Menjangan Island, Northwest Bali, Indonesia

The coastal Pelinggih Sang Hyang Dewa Ganesa shrine on Menjangan Island in Bali, Indonesia.

Spiritual inspiration for Bali's carvers and artisans

Take a day-trip from Sanur's family-friendly beaches in the south of the island to Bali's cultural heart of Ubud, and you'll see a thousand varieties of Ganesha for sale.

The Hindu elephant god Ganesha carrying his axe at a stone-carver's shop in Batubulan, Bali

The Hindu elephant god Ganesha carrying his axe at a stone-carver's shop in Batubulan, Bali, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

If you're looking to buy a stone statue, you'll pass through the traditional stone-carving village of Batubulan (literally, 'Stone Moon') where you'll find him reclining, writing, dancing and playing musical instruments.

A young Lord Ganesha writing with his broken tusk at a stone-carver's workshop in Batubulan, Bali, Indonesia

The stone carving of a young Lord Ganesh writing with his broken tusk at a stone carver's workshop in Batubulan, Bali.

© 2017 Ubud High.

Ganesh and Buddha at a stone carver's shop in Batubulan, Bali, Indonesia

Stone carvings of Dewa Ganesa – the Balinese Ganesha – and Buddha wait patiently for buyers at a stone carver's shop in Batubulan, Bali.

© 2017 Ubud High.

If you're looking for a quality woodcarving, try the woodcarvers' village of Mas, just south of Ubud. In Ubud you'll find him intricately carved out of cattle bone, or painted with love on egg shells or canvas.

For Kadek Sutriman, a carver of ebony-and-mammoth-ivory Ganesha kris handles sold at Taro's Elephant Safari Park, it's simple:

"For me," he says, "it's never about the finished product. It's a form of devotion when I carve a God who is so important to me."

"Carving a figure of Dewa Ganesa gives me the time to meditate on who he is, what he teaches me, and the protection he offers to my community. It's about prayer and gratitude. It's just an offering; a part of my life that I happily give back to him."

Kris sword hilt of Ganesha carved from ebony wood with mammoth ivory inlays at the Taro Elephant Safari Park

Kris sword hilt of Lord Ganesha the Hindu Elephant God carved from ebony wood with mammoth ivory inlays on sale at the Elephant Safari Park in Taro, Bali, Indonesia.

The Hindu elephant god Ganesha with Balinese offerings in Bali, Indonesia

The two-armed Hindu Elephant God Ganesha ('Dewa Ganesa') with Balinese offerings in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

© 2017 Ubud High.

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