In the 1800s, Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar of Mysore (now Mysuru), a great patron of art and culture, compiled a book containing depictions of gods and goddesses, mythological beings and yoga asanas. The book called the Sritattvanidhi — The Illustrious Treasure of Realities, is aptly named for it truly is a treasure. The treatise is particularly famous for its delineation of the 32 forms of Ganapati, which are given in a section of the book called the Shivanidhi. Each beautiful illustration carries with it a shloka from the Mudgala Purana, a text devoted to Ganesha.

Piety and aesthetics
The book provided a fillip to the Mysore style of painting and served almost to codify the colours, forms and techniques used in this style. Along with depictions of other gods and goddesses shown in the book, these 32 forms of Ganesha also became, and still remain, a popular subject in traditional Mysore paintings.

At the Srikanteshwara Temple in Nanjangud, you can see all 32 forms from the Srititattvanidhi in sculpture form. This temple began as a small shrine in the Ganga period in the 9th century. Over the years, successive rulers added structures to the temple. Now it is one of Karnataka’s largest and most important temples. In the 1800s, Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar renovated and made some additions to the Temple, some of which have become part of the Temple’s claims to fame. The Temple’s spacious courtyard is enclosed by walls that are 12 feet high. All along the top of the wall are brick-and-mortar niches housing beautifully detailed stucco images of gods and goddesses, each with their names inscribed below in Kannada. The niches along the northern wall enshrine the various forms of Ganesha. Seeing the various stucco Ganeshas one after the other — Dhundiganapati, Shaktiganapati, Lakshmiganapati, Rinamochanaganapati and on and on — I felt it was the closest I would ever come to reading Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar’s magnum opus!

Talk about the Wodeyars and the elephant-headed god and one cannot but mention the Atmavilasa Ganapati. Visitors to the Mysore Palace cannot fail to notice this huge idol prominently placed in one of the halls. There is a reason it has been given the pride of place — In 1897, when an accidental fire destroyed the old palace, this idol was one of the few things to remain unscathed by the inferno. This is why when it was placed in the new palace, a special tower was built over it, marking out the Atmavilas Ganapati as particularly sacred. Traditionally, Mysore Dasara celebrations are kicked off with pujas being offered to this deity. R G Singh, of the Mysore-based art foundation Ramsons Kala Pratishthana, informs that the Atmavilas Ganesha is made of mud and was made by artisans from the Chitragar community in Mysore. Interestingly, the idol’s stomach is reputed to be filled with 450 sacred shaligramas.

Another famous Ganapati in Mysuru is the red-hued idol in the Jaganmohan Palace. Made with a frame of bamboo and covered with papier mache and cloth, it is comparable in appearance to the one in the main palace.

Shades of divinity
The large, red-hued Mysore Ganeshas call to mind another famous Ganesha, this time from Gulur, near Tumakuru, famed for its month-long worship of the remover of obstacles. Legend ascribes the beginnings of this tradition to a time when a poor priest in the village sought help from the venerable Sage Agastya to resolve some of the intractable problems in his life. Agastya bade the priest bring some clay from the nearby Gulur Lake and then fashioned an idol of Ganesha from it. Together, they worshipped this idol for 30 days, after which the priest’s difficulties were resolved. And so began the tradition of Ganesha celebrations. The process begins on Ganesha Chaturthi, when clay is brought from the Gulur Lake. Artisans mix the clay with coir and begin work on making the 8-9 feet high idol. The idol is still coloured with natural pigments. Rakesh A Gulur, an engineer, says, “It gives the idol an attractive pinkish-red hue.” The worship of this idol begins on Deepavali day and continues for more than a month, ending in a jatre in December when the idol is taken around in a procession.

Where the Gulur Ganesha is painstakingly and joyously remade every year, another set of very famous Ganesha idols are two that have stood the test of time — the two monolithic Ganeshas fashioned 500 years ago in Hampi. Historians Anna Dallipiccola and Anila Verghese rate the 2.4 m high four-armed Sasivekalu Ganesha as among the best specimens of Vijayanagar sculpture, for its fine carvings on the idol. Though slightly damaged — the trunk and lower left hand are broken — the skill of the unknown artisans who worked on this image is such that the god still projects an endearing persona which does not detract from his numinosity. Nearby is the Kadlekalu Ganesha, more imposing because of its larger height of 4.5 m but less finely finished than the Sasivekalu Ganesha.

India’s earliest sculpture of Ganesha dates to about 1st century AD and was found in Gokarna, according to art historian R H Kulkarni, principal of Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath. But, as he points out, early Ganeshas differed from those of today. For example, they were two-armed, did not have a yajnopavita (sacred thread), nor a snake around the belly. One representation from the 6th century that many of us have seen is in Badami, where Ganesha is shown dancing next to his father doing the tandava. There is no snake, nor even the characteristic pot-belly of later depictions, but he does have that lovable charm that we associate with Ganesha.

Today, of course, India’s favourite god graces dashboards in cars, doubles up as pen stands, key chains, earrings, bookends and sundry other items, and is also a collectible item, when he is shown dancing, sitting, standing, reclining, reading, relaxing and more. As R G Singh of Mysuru notes drily, the modern Ganesha seems definitely animation-influenced, “with very large ears and very stylised eyes.” In spite of this, present day idol makers claim that they draw inspiration from traditional designs. Manjunath Hiremath, an idol maker in Dharwad, says that he refers to traditional designs while making idols.

But whatever variations or permutations his depictions take, this elephant-headed bestower of prosperity, this remover of obstacles, this god of auspicious beginnings remains popular across all castes and cults.