Ninety-five Names of Ganesh

February 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Lakshmi the elephant was not at her station, but the Ganesh temple in Pondicherry was open and crowded with local residents, Indian tourists, a few Europeans looking silly in their socks. The Hindus stop at stalls that line the street outside to assemble an offering or carry their own bowls prepared at home with tied sprigs of grass, pieces of coconut, small bananas, yellow and red flowers, a single, large pink lotus blossom, something sweet, money, all the things that Ganesh loves. Some touch the finger-worn brass image of Ganesh on the mirror-bright money collection canister outside the door, others bend to touch the foot-polished threshold with its image of a lotus flower, the jambs and columns inside covered with more patterned yellow brass. Some of them circle clockwise through the long narrow space around the inner sanctum, a room within a room, stopping to light a lamp or receive a dab of red or yellow on the forehead from a temple functionary. Others join lines on twin raised causeways either side of the direct path to the sanctum. A few take advantage of a sort of express lane where for 20 rupees you can jump the line to enter by a side door. Temple men wearing white dhoti and a single white string across their bare chest ring bells and carry smoking lamps to the waiting devout who pass their hand over the flame, then lightly across the top of the head. They offer a stainless steel bowl of white pigment to be drawn across the forehead with an index finger in a single, double or triple horizontal line. People lean in, craning their necks to see ahead, excited or impatient, waiting their turn to do darshan, a reciprocal interaction between devotee and image. An act of looking at, beholding or simply glimpsing a divine image or holy person, darshan heightens spiritual consciousness and develops mutual affection between god and devotee. Bodies shift and for a second through the crowd, deep within the innermost sacred space where the living god resides, Ganesh is visible, garlanded and wrapped, glistening black. Intermediated by the attendants, devotees kneel and prostrate themselves to look, to see and be seen. image
Over the entrance to the inner sanctum is a large symbol of Ganesh in red neon, the pulsing tubes giving the room a pleasant, incongruous glow, like a liquor store beer sign in church. Simultaneously conspicuous and ignored, nobody seems to care that I am taking notes, that my knees don’t bend when I sit on the floor or that my expression of perpetual, awestruck curiosity could be interpreted as rude. A soundscape of hand rung bells, whir of a dozen ceiling fans, low conversations, loud voices of workmen and the distinctive metallic thunder and twang of sheets of corrugated metal being removed from scaffolding; this is not a hushed cathedral or Christian chapel. The people here are serious and reverent, but mostly relaxed and about their business. Some appear in a hurry to perform a duty, observe a ritual and be on their way, others linger cross-legged on the floor around the perimeter, meditating or talking softly. A woman takes flowers from two plastic bags, ties a garland of marigolds and pink blossoms in rapid rhythmic repetition, a simple motion practiced thousands of times. Like knitting, she does not need to look.
On one wall a serene Ganesh is flanked by floating, banner bearing attendants, adoring Tamil putti with plump bare bottoms, wings and curly black hair. The upper eight-foot band of the interior walls is lined with a gallery of portraits, a high-relief plaster frieze painted in the gaudy-bright polychrome typical of South Indian temples. In stacked tiers of three- by four-foot panels above a wide black dado densely inscribed with Tamil script and a high wainscot of dark red granite, the elephant-headed god is presented in ninety-five iterations; as a child, dancing, fat, fierce, serene, poised ready for action, worshiping Shiva, being worshiped by Ravanah, meditating, multi-headed and multi-armed. He is called Ganesh, Ganesa, Ganepathy, Maha, Bhuvana, Vijaya, Herambla, Narantha, Oorthava, Shripra, Mayuresa, Dundi, Shanmuga, Pancha Muga, Mooshi Gavahani and eighty other names.
As I stand taking notes, a gentleman who had been sitting on the white marble floor approaches me, leaning on a cane. “I am sorry to disturb you, but I see that you are taking notes and I want to explain to you that these images on the walls around you are part of a system of mystic symbolism.” I tell him of my interest in elephants and Ganesh. He says that these images have nothing to do with elephants, that Ganesh is simply a mythical being that happens to have the head of an animal, like the Minotaur. He repeats, “It is merely mystic symbolism. Some Hindus are religious, some are spiritual, some are intellectual, some are merely ritualistic.” Does a Hindu think about Ganesh when he sees a living elephant? He replies, “That would depend on the individual, if I saw an elephant come into this room right now, I would think about running away.” His name is Subramaniam, named for Ganesh’s elder brother, also son of Shiva and Parvathi. “I am 78 and I have lost many things in my life, now I come here each day to meditate for half an hour, and for those minutes all my worries fall away.” We chat, his voice so soft I need to cup my ear to hear. Taking his leave, he puts a hand on my shoulder- “May all these gods bless you.”

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