Happy Birthday today for the Lord of Beginnings and Endings, the God we all worship first before all the others: Ganapati – otherwise known as Vinayaka, Pillayar, Ganesan, Karpaga Vinayaka . . . this does not by any means exhaust the list of names for this most beloved god.
He is the guardian of all transitions, between night and day, earth and sky, between male and female, human and animal, secular and sacred. His birthday is one of the most joyous festivals of all because he is just about everyone’s favourite, especially children, teenagers, teachers, gardeners, drummers, trans-gender-persons, priests, shop-keepers, cooks, housewives, business-men and merchants, writers, book-sellers, farmers, God-makers, God-sellers and god-picture-sellers. The archetypical popular god, he is.
Even though all Hindu businesses and homes already have at least one image of Vinayaka, today young men produce mud likenesses of his Lordship in moulds on just about every street corner because every family and shop will buy one of these For Ganapati Charduthi – his birthday. Look:
These little statues are the first two waiting to be taken around to homes the back streets. They were made by a group of God-makers working together in the images below; they seem to me to produce by far the most beautiful Ganapatis:
You can see by the exchange between the god-maker and the god-receiver here that the transaction is made with the utmost respect and reverence.
Each happy God will be taken home to an altar set up for his birthday. Each house has been scrupulously cleaned ready for the entrance of the God. From the moment he is reverently installed in his place each household observes a sanctity suitable for the presence of the God: no arguments, no shouting, hitting, bashing, banging, no rude behaviour or words whatsoever are allowed, no animal products are to be consummed or even enter the house, no sex to take place within, no grog, not for the full five days of his celebrations during which puja will be made for him every day.
No quick-fixes, no half-way measures for this Lord’s birthday! He is highly respected by absolutely everybody. Although he is short and fat, he’s the captain of the Gunas, the head of Siva’s army of ghouls and other wierdos. He is formidable (in French)!
We worship him first because he governs the entrance-way to all the other gods.
Here I must admit that I always thought that he is altruistic standing there at the gateway to all those other (venal) divinities, but Shunya just enlightened me to the need for us to bribe him first so that he will allow us to proceed through the entrance, so that we can bribe the others. So I can’t claim – as I was about to – that Ganapati is not venal after all: I always thought that this was an essential part of the story but I was entirely mistaken.
They’re all venal.
But I definitely can claim that this is perfectly alright: bribery is merely the most convenient way to influence within each-our-own-world.
You know even some Muslim, Parsee, Buddhist and Christian homes and businesses have an image of Vinayaka, I’m told, because he has a benevolent influence even if you don’t believe in him.
Back on the main road again, the formidable fat funny forms are being turned out to keep pace with demand:
Ganapati is the also the one who transcribed the Mahabharata from the horse’s mouth, remember? This feat reveals Vinayaka’s endurance – as well as Vyasa’s, since the epic is exceedingly long . . . something like twice as long as the Illiad and the Odyssey put together.
So you see we have quite a character here. Vinayaka is one of the most fabulous characters ever. As one old man once asked me at a bus-stand: How great is God! Who would ever have thought that an elephant’s head would look so beautiful on a human body?! And it’s true. So true.
He is beloved by absolutely everyone because he is totally benevolent, reliable, tubby, short and fat, he rides about on a rat, he’s very funny-looking and he has a superb sense of humour. This is important.
His sense of humour is so sound that – everyone tells me: we can make fun of him if we like – he finds this hilarious. A poster advertising a ready-made shop downtown had a lovely picture of Lord Ganesa buying a big pile of T-shirts inscribed with his symbol . . . very nice, very amusing. You just cannot offend him. He is absolutely authentic.
You may notice one of his tusks is broken, you may wonder why . . . kinda like having one front tooth missing in the west, isn’t it? The story is a simple one about basic human weakness really: after a huge feast of Ladoo (his most favourite food), Ganesh was riding home on his trusty vehicle Mushika (the Rat or perhaps Shrew) . . . feeling drowsier and drowsier having over-indulged, when he unceremoniously fell off. Even Mushika found him a bit funny lying there on his back with his mountainous belly, a stunned expression on his sleepy face, but the Moon – herself full, found the sight hilarious and she roared with laughter. Whereupon Ganesh grunted to standing, adjusted his wrap-around cloth on his ample middle, broke a bit off his left tusk and hurled it furiously at the Moon. That’s how.
The moral of this story is that although he is thrilled to bits when we humans laugh at him, he’s not impressed when one of the celestial orbs lowers their dignity to laugh out loud at the vagaries of a very relaxed God simply playing his part in the scheme of things.
Tens of thousands of made-with-mud images will be created today in our town alone; tens of millions will be made throughout all of India. You can appreciate why he is so popular.
See: this boy is exceptionally pleased with his exceptionally beautiful Ganapati:
It didn’t take long for the cart of divinities to be filled . . . It turned up in the back streets a little later when I headed home:
Aren’t they lovely?
Technically, Vinayaka should have no navel. His birth was very peculiar did you know? No?
I will tell you about that later. Here in the South Vinayaka is determinedly celibate. In the North he has two wives – Sarasvati and another one; I always thought that nevertheless South and North were congruent on the celibacy issue but Shunya told me today that no no no . . . I was mistaken about that too. Best I avoid this issue; in India gender issues have a way of being heavily complicated.
Bringing a cart loaded with twenty exquisite Vinayakas is simply a gesture of affection for the households in this collection of back streets . . . by saving householders the time and effort going out to buy their own and carrying their new gods back home.
Just a short while before I left the cluster of onlookers around the God-makers back down on the main road, a young boy dashed over from across the busy street to ask me if I would like to photograph his gods, here he is with them:
That was his little cache and his family had a bigger spread nearby, these remind me of easter-eggs – they are also made of mud, not sugar. And they don’t smell of artificial strawberry either, I can assure you.
Notice in the image below below all the big plastic bags behind the gods . . . they are filled with more gorgeous mud ready for the moulding of even more gods. It is perfectly appropriate that Ganapati’s birthday form be made of earth. Mother Earth.
Despite this, have you noticed what a back-stage role the girls have?
Down the road further was a different – equally gaudy, cloned style.
There was a Function set-up in one street with people waiting expectantly . . .
They seem to be facing the wrong direction but then what would I know?
The place of honour the people sat with their backs to was occupied by a sculptural family collage: Ganapati with his mother Parvati sitting almost on his lap, with three heads – his own elephant one, with his father Lord Siva’s head on one side of that and his brother Lord Murugan on the other. So there you go. Now you know:
Ganapati is the son of Siva and Parvati, brother of Murugan, otherwise known as Skanda; also known as Kartikeya, Kumar, Kumaran . . . . . Etc.
However this is a misleading picture to say the least. It doesn’t explain either the absence of a navel or the elephant-head, does it? And it’s false, even. Notice that here Ganesh sits on Nandi – his father’s vehicle, the sacred bull, while his own vehicle – Mushika the Rat (perhaps originally a Shrew) is represented small as is more reasonable, engaged in eating a ladoo – Ganesa’s favourite food.
Everybody knows this story, all the clues are dispersed among all the various variations on the theme radiating in one way or another from the big, tubby, over-dressed, heavily made-up, elephant-headed-God-body. Giant ones like this were everywhere today, here are just a few captured on the way into town:
Despite the deafening noise, this last variation on the theme of what actually is a nucleus of stories shows Ganapati sitting on a huge coiled serpent with its hydra-head forming a canopy a bit like an umbrella over his celestial head. This refers obliquely to the many stories of his father’s relationship with king cobras or giant serpents of some kind, in particular it reminds us iconographicly of Father reclining on a bed made of the body of a giant serpent but I will have to check this story with Munisha who has recently mastered the art of worship.
The deafening music coming from the loudspeakers is supposed to cease tonight – much to the relief of all those sentient beings who retain some semblance of auditory functioning; Indians are a practical people and I think it’s clear that everybody has had enough of this noise for now. Maybe not.
However the mandatory sacred-courtly procedures in households will continue for two more days before traditional events take place in every family that enact a ritual referring symbolically to the part of this story that justifies the absence of Ganapati’s navel.
So despite the conspicuous navels on most of the Ganesas in these images, I will briefly tell you the story in case you’ve not heard it before:
Lord Siva was in the habit of meditating alone for centuries at a time, leaving Parvati to amuse herself at home; naturally she longed for a companion so one day while taking an oil bath she moulded the form of a child from the skin-cells rubbed from her body. In this way she made herself a little boy, breathed life into him and enjoyed his company for some time. She requested him to guard the door to her bathing place so that she not be disturbed taking bath, she asked him not to allow anyone whatsoever entry. Then she proceeded to take a leisurely bath.
But as fate would have it Siva happened to come home before she emerged fresh and clean. He was astonished to be accosted ferociously by a small boy forbidding him entry to his wife’s presence. Siva recklessly took out his sword and cut off the boy’s head.
When Parvati discovered this she demanded her husband go out and bring back the head of the first creature he met, to replace the head of her son. Since it happened that Lord Siva first encountered an elephant – a female elephant, I believe, so Ganapati came into being.
Notice that in this case, Vinayaka is not the son of Lord Siva, not at all. Neither is he the son of Parvati since her husband made an end to the son that she had made from the skin of her body.
And he is neither male nor female but both, which kinda gives weight to the Southern interpretation of all this, doesn’t it? Maybe not.
And notice that technically speaking Ganapati should not have a navel because he was not born the way beings with navels are born, right? Although the purpose of navels is to connect the baby with the mother, Vinayaka has an even more intimate connexion with his mother. Nevertheless Parvati could have pretended that the baby she moulded from her skin-cells was really a baby born in the same way that other human/divine babies are born. She could have. I suppose.
Ganapati is himself. His existence was caused by Fate itself. He is utterly unique. You’ve never heard anything like it, have you?
I arrived home just in time for the wonderful puja made by Mo in her lovely PujaRoom with her two lovely daughters.
While the youngest little girl tinkled about intrusively in her Cinderella dress, pre-pubescent Muni has now mastered the art of worship to bow down in abject surrender to the form of her beloved celestial being.
In this remarkably focussed Ganapaty Birthday Puja, no less than five individual forms of the god acted as witnesses to the concerted reccognition of the elemental deities, in honour of the first God of all: Vinayaka.
It was an honour for me to be present in this human form too.
Tomorrow the family will return the body of birthday-boy to his original form via Water: the first element, harking back to that fateful bath just before his predecessor was beheaded by his father.
What a story!
What a tradition!
Well, tomorrow is today and you won’t believe what’s going on in town . . .
. . . . Festival in full swing . . .
. . . HUNDREDS of the giant Ganapatis . . . . and they are on the move . . . everywhere . . . .
But where are they all going with all those boys!?
They’re all heading for a bath.
I followed people going to the largest water tank we have here: Tamari Thirthum where there was plenty happening.
You see many many small household Ganapatis are coming here for their bath too. No doubt you will also notice that many homes wear just as much make-up as Ganapati.
You’re wondering what the cranes are for?
As I’ve mentioned often: the Tamils are a practical people . . .
Now you’re wondering what they did before we had cranes?
It’s not so much a bath as a big splosh.
It’s the boys who get to have all the fun. Women and girls just dress up and watch the boys having all the fun.
We all know what to do here: all the steps were laid down in ancient times; we take our place in the Arkashic record by performing the moves each at the proper time. In this way we create and contribute to the meaning of life in our own.