Iconography of Gaṇeśa

Five headed Gaṇeśa on a tiger Punjab Hills, Kangra 19th century

Vighnēśvara may be represented seated or standing. The seat may be a padmāsana or a mouse (his vāhana) or in rare instances, a lion. If the figure is standing, it should generally have a few bends in the body so as to be of the dribhaṅga (two bends) or tribhaṅga (three bends) type but can also be in the straight samabhaṅga pose. If seated, his left leg folded and resting on a seat, in lalitāsana or mahārājalīla or ‘royal ease’, as it is often called. Gaṇeśa with his trunk turned towards the right is known in Tamil as Valamburi Vināyaka, and if turned towards the left he is called Iḍamburi Vināyaka.

Gaṇeśa, basalt stele 11th century Eastern India

Vighnēśvara is figured in most cases with only two eyes; the āgamas, however, prescribe three eyes to him in certain aspects. He may have four, six, eight, ten or even sixteen arms; but the majority of sculptures have only four arms. The belly of Lambōdara, as he is often enough called, has to be very capacious and sometimes obscures the view of his folded thigh. Across his chest must wound a snake in the form of the yajñōpavita; and around the belly is often tied a second girdle of a snake, the presence of which is accounted for in the following purāṇic legend: Gaṇeśa, receiving from his worshipers an offering of innumerable modakas, proceeded to eat them all and thus his belly became abnormally distended. He then mounted on his vähana, the rat, and started off to return to his dwelling place, when the rat, seeing a serpent cross its path, tripped with fright, sending Gaṇeśa rolling to the ground. In falling off, his dilated abdomen burst, and all the innumerable modakas that he had eaten fell out. He proceeded to gather them and replace them in his capacious belly; and after killing the serpent, he tied it around his waist to keep them from falling out again. The Moon, surrounded by his twenty-seven starry consorts, had watched the above proceeding with much mirth and finally burst into uproarious laughter, which so infuriated Gaṇeśa that he pulled out one of his tusks and threw it at the Moon. Darkness then covered the earth, and the gods in great distress begged the ‘Remover of Obstacles’ to withdraw his tusk from the repentant Moon. This he consented to do, but in order to punish the Moon, he willed that for ever after its brilliance, in every month, should wax and wane. This story also accounts for Gaṇeśa’s single tusk in addition to offering an explanation for the lunar cycle.

Gaṇeśa, Tamil Nadu, Nayaka Period 17th/18th century

The symbols that are unique to Gaṇeśa, held by no other deity are: the broken tusk, a citron, wood-apple (jambu), a radish, a stylus, a bowl of sweets, and a modaka; but he may have other attributes such as the ax, a lasso, a book, a sword, a kalaśa, a snake, etc. In his Tantric forms with many arms, he holds the usual Tantric icons. The citron or the jambu stands for the Gaṇapati-liṅgā. The radish, almost unknown in India, is a favorite attribute in Nepal and in Tibet as well as in Japan. As it is never carried by Gaņeśa at the same time as the broken tusk, which is practically unknown in those three countries, it seems possible that the radish was primarily a misinterpretation or a badly executed broken tusk.

Gaṇeśa Enthroned School of Sanju, Mandi, circa 1800–1820

The prayer used in the worship of Gaņapati as principal household deity is the following: “I adore the Elephant-faced Gaņesa, the Incomprehensible with sharp tusks, three eyes and a capacious belly …. King of all Beings, the Eternal … blood red of hue, whose glorious forehead is illuminated by the new moon painted with the froth of the Gaṅgā, the son of Śiva, and the Remover of all Difficulties.”

Gaṇeśa in all his ornamented glory, at Halebid (ancient Dwarasamudra) in Karnataka; once the capital of the Hoysala dynasty which flourished from about 1100–1350 AD. Invasions by the Delhi Sultanate in the 14th century led to its decline. Richard Banner Oakeley 1856

Gaṇeśa in the Ārya-Gaṇapati stotra is addressed as the ‘Lord of Jewels, with a body of Jewels, Jeweled Source of Jewels, who protects the Jewels of the Doctrine. O, Lord, with the trunk of an elephant, homage!’ The Säradatilaka-tantra describes the invitation of Gaṇeśa by the worshiper, who was to conceive of an island made of nine precious stones or navaratna, and on that island are said to be wish-fulfilling trees and creepers like mandāra and pārijāta. the horizon is illuminated by the rising sun and the moon. “Conceive a pārijāta tree (one of the five trees of paradise) made of nine jewels. … Under the tree, inside the primordial lotus, is an āsana seated upon which Maha-Gaņapati should be invoked inside a triangle, within a hexagon..”

In the Gaṇeśa-purāṇa there is a legend which describes Gaņeśa as being symbolized by a cintāmaņi. Once, a great Asura, Tripurasura by name, worshiped Gaņeśa with the two mantras, ‘Śri Gaṇeśa namaḥ’ and ‘Ōm’ (Gaṇeśa is said to be praṇava svarūpa or the personification of Ōmkāra) while standing on his great toe thousands of years in mystic contemplation of the elephant-faced god. Gaṇeśa, deeply impressed by his austerity, appeared before him, whereupon Tripurāsura asked as reward for his victory over his senses and passions that he be able to conquer the Three Worlds. As soon as Gaṇeśa had granted his request, Tripurāsura proceeded to conquer Brahmā and reduce Viṣṇu to submission; but Śiva, when asked to descend from Mount Kailāśa, demurred. The three great gods appealed to Gaṇeśa to save them from utter destruction. Gaṇeśa, promising to do so, disguised himself as a Brahmaṇa ascetic and, appearing to Tripurāsura, proposed building for him a great city on Mount Kailāsa, but insisted that, at the entrance to Kailāsa, be erected a cintāmaņi dedicated to Gaņeśa. This being done, Śiva refused to abandon Kailāsa and a great battle ensued; but as the Lord of the Trident put his faith in Gaṇeśa and worshiped him, Tripurāsura lost the Three Worlds and disappeared into the Divine Essence, as had been promised him by the Supreme Gaṇeśa.

References and suggested further reading:

  1. Gaṇeśa: A Monograph on the Elephant-faced God by Alice Getty
  2. Elements of Hindu Iconography by T. A. Gopinatha Rao

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