taleblazing . . . travel tales from around the world   . . .
  . previous tale  .
. next tale  .
irikupallam’s rice farms
. more tales  .
. . . . .

Check out Dennis' debut novel
Soul Identity - Dennis Batchelder's debut novel
. . . . .

ganesh charturthi
By Dennis Batchelder 17 september 2005

Now that we're living in India, we're getting used to a new set of holidays. This is the beginning of the holiday season, which runs this year from September 7 until November 1. Last Wednesday was the seventh, and the holiday was Ganesh Charturthi, which starts on the fourth day after the new moon and runs for eleven nights. Charturthi means fourth in Sanskrit, and Ganesh is the god who is being honored. He's the god with the elephant head – the smart son of Shiva and Parvati.

Here's what happens during this holiday: First, every family and every neighborhood and every village makes a new plaster or clay Ganesh statue. In the house, these statues are twelve inches tall and sit in the prayer (puja) room. In the neighborhoods and villages, these statues range from three to thirty feet tall, and special outdoor plywood puja rooms are constructed for them.

The Ganesh statues then get painted and decorated. Every morning and evening, people put food around the statue – Ganesh’s favorite food is laddu, a sweet made out of chick pea flour (more on that later). Bunches of coconuts, broken open by different people each morning, lie at his feet.

Hyderabad takes Ganesh Charturthi seriously. There are fifteen thousand neighborhood Ganesh statues spread around the city, living in their temporary three-sided rooms. If you drive around town in the evening, you pass by hundreds of them. The puja rooms are lit up with blinking strings of lights, and spotlights shine on the statues.

In the evenings, people come and sit in front of the puja room, admiring the statue, saying their prayers, and mingling together. Then later on at night, the men and boys have a big party, and stay up late singing songs and dancing in front of Ganesh. This gets pretty loud for those of us trying to sleep. At midnight a curtain is drawn over open side of the puja room, and Ganesh rests until morning.

The full moon comes on the eleventh night, and the holiday is over. Now here’s the problem: what to do with fifteen thousand large plaster and clay statues? You can’t just break them up; that would be dishonorable to Ganesh. Fortunately, there’s a very colorful solution to this problem: return Ganesh to the water.

taking ganesh to the lakeFor whatever reason, even numbered days are not good days for a drowning, and odd numbered days are great. Starting on the fifth day (the eleventh is best, but I think it also depends on how crowded the lake- or river-side gets), the men find a big open-bed trunk, load Ganesh onto it, tie on orange headbands, and cover their heads and bodies and clothes with fluorescent purple paint. They clamber aboard the truck, crank up the music, sing at the top of their lungs, and slowly drive to the closest river or lake. Along the way, they spray purple paint on the people, dogs, and cars they pass. Then they lift the statue out of truck, and four of the men carry Ganesh into the water, where he sinks to the bottom. The men standing on the shore help the guys out of the water, and they spend the rest of the night partying. A cool holiday, especially for the guys.

While we were driving to Nagarjuna Saga Dam last Sunday, Sreelekha told us the story of how Ganesh got his elephant head. I wrote it down so we could all enjoy it. Then I asked Shreelekha's mom to verify the accuracy, and Sreelekha got into trouble for not getting the details right. Chaitanya came to the rescue and corrected it, so I think it’s close ...

Why Ganesh has an Elephant Head
as told to me by Sreelekha
and corrected for her by Chaitanya

The story starts with Gajasura, a vicious elephant demon. Gajasura was on the rampage, killing lots of innocent people, making a real nuisance in the local village. Shiva was pretty happy with this - he's one of the three main gods in Hinduism. His job each time he comes back is to destroy the world. Although he loves destruction, he acts a little naïve, and he ends up trusting people when he should be avoiding them.

Case in point: Gajasura. Shiva was so happy with the elephant demon that he promised him that he would grant whatever Gajasura wished for. So Gajasura wished that he would live forever with Shiva living inside of his stomach. Nice for Gajasura, but not so nice for Shiva. See what I mean about naïve?

Now it seems that Indian gods need to keep their promises. That’s good for us, otherwise the story would be over, and we still wouldn’t know about Ganesh’s elephant head. So let’s continue: Shiva is inside of Gajasura, and Parvati, Shiva’s wife, is unable to find him.

Parvati asked Vishnu to help find Shiva. Vishnu found out what happened, and used his own trickery on Gajasura: he disguised himself as a bear, and started dancing some really cool steps. Gajasura saw the dance, and was totally delighted by the moves, and told the bear that he’d grant him a wish.

Elephant demons are as naïve as the gods, I guess. Vishnu said “I want by buddy Shiva back,” and Shiva burst out, ripping open Gajasura’s belly. Shiva was so mad that he grabbed his trident and chopped off Gajasura’s head.

As his head went rolling by Shiva, Gajasura told Shiva that he was sorry, and that he wished he was still alive, so he could do more things for him. Shiva started feeling really bad about this, and he told Gajasura that he’d figure something out. Then Shiva headed back home to Parvati.

While Vishnu was out retrieving Shiva from Gajasura’s stomach, Parvati wanted to take a bath. In the times of this story, people used chick pea flour as a soap to scrub off the dirt. Parvati molded a little boy out of the chick pea flour. She then brought the boy to life, and named him Ganesh – her and Shiva’s new son.

Usually when Parvati bathed, she had somebody watch the house and the door. Since Shiva was still missing, she asked Ganesh to keep everybody out. Ganesh, eager to please his mom, stood outside the door.

But as you probably already guessed, Shiva chose that moment to come home. Dad and son hadn’t met yet, and each time Shiva tried to pass, Ganesh stopped him. Pretty soon Shiva was rip-roaring mad, and he whipped out his trident, lopped off Ganesh’s head, and charged into Parvati’s bathing room.

Not a pretty scene: Shiva, grasping his dripping trident in one hand, holding up Ganesh’s head in the other. Parvati, startled at his entry, wailing over the loss of their brand new son, and screaming at Shiva to find a way to bring him back to life.

Shiva’s specialty was in taking lives, not restoring them. He found Vishnu and asked him to bring his new son back to life. Vishnu looked at Ganesh’s body and said that the only way to bring back the boy would be to find another head, facing south, and to attach it to the body.

Now that was something that Shiva could help with. As luck would have it, he just happened to have left Gajasua’s head facing south. He retrieved Gajusura’s head, Vishnu attached it to the chick pea flour body, and Ganesh sprang to life. And that is why Ganesh has an elephant head.


I asked Sreelekha if the story had any lessons for us to learn. She looked at me, and said sternly, “These are not fables, Dennis. They don’t need morals.” Oops. So I decided to come up with my own lessons for the main characters:

For Shiva and Gajasura: add some caveats to your wish granting promises.

For Parvati: use something stronger than chick pea flour when you make your babies.

For Ganesh: Unless you want big ears and a long nose, stay out of the way of guys with tridents.

For Sreelekha and Chaitanya: Careful to whom you tell your stories, as they may end up online.

ganesh charturthi - india