Ganesh and Khandoba: Regional is National
by Sandhya Jain on 08 Feb 2010 7 Comments

Ganapati, remover of obstacles, the first deity to be invoked and offered worship – even by the Gods themselves – most likely originated in the forests of Maharashtra region, and is the best example of how the tribal, local, regional, acquired pan-India status in Hindu tradition. Evidence suggests Ganesh’s non-Vedic origin, possibly a hoary tribal past. The god entered popular tradition only around the 3rd or 4th century AD, but quickly acquired unparalleled eminence and came to be equally reverenced by the Hindu, Jaina and Baudha traditions.


The projection of gods in therianthropic forms (partly animal, partly man) such as the Varaha and Narasimha avatars of Vishnu or the elephant-headed son of Shiva, possibly derived from a desire to integrate tribal and folk traditions across the land.


The earliest literary reference to Ganesh or Ganapati is found in Hala’s Saptasati, a Prakrit anthology of versified literature. It contains an obscure reference to the god’s mysterious power over the sea, something the deity is not populary associated with today, and probably hints at primordial links with water and fertility. Tiruvalanjuli near Kumbhakonam in Tanjore district has a 10th century temple of Sveta Vinayaka (white-coloured Vinayaka) which is believed to have been worshipped by the gods so they could successfully churn the ocean.


By all accounts, Ganesh was a composite deity, who rose to divinity by acquiring four hands and an exclusive vahan, the mouse. He came to be known as: Gajanana (elephant-faced), Lambodara (pot-bellied), Ekadanta (one-tusked), Ganadhipa (Lord of ganas or hosts), Vinayaka (great leader), Vighneshvara (Lord of obstacles), Vighnakarta (creator of obstacles) and Vighnaharta (remover of obstacles). He secured priority of worship (agrapuja) as vinayaka shanti (pacification of Vinayaka) became the key to success in any rite or activity.


Originally, the four Vinayakas were gramadevatas and caused suffering and disease, according to the Manavagrihyasutra (7th–4th century BC). They fused into a single Vinayaka by the time of the Yajnavalkyasmirti (1st–3rd century AD), which elevated Vinayaka as son of Ambika, who later coalesced with Shiva’s spouse, Parvati. By the time of the Puranas in the post-Gupta period, Vinayaka became the son of Shiva and Parvati and was appointed leader of Shiva’s hosts, the rudraganas. He acquired the status of Ganesh, lord of ganas, a brahmanic god of high status. Thus, from the gramadevata Vinayaka, a vighnakarta, he became vighnaharta (remover of impediments in the execution of any task) and siddhidata (bestower of success).


This rise in the classical pantheon can be discerned in art and iconography. As Vinayaka the god had only two arms, but once he became a Pauranic deity, he acquired four (or more) arms. His familiar attributes include laddus/modaka (sweets), ankusa (goad), pasa (noose) and a tusk. At first he was a humble dvaradevata (guardian of the gate) at the entrance of Shiva temples, but soon he entered into the presence of Parvati and the saptamatrikas on the walls of the agramandapa, mukhamandapa, ardhamandapa, into niches of temple walls. Later, as a parivara devata or parsva devata, he acquired a subsidiary (parsva) shrine next to the main shrine of Shiva, and ultimately secured independent shrines.


This marvellous trajectory saw the god equated with Brahmanaspati of the Vedas, despite his undoubted non-Vedic origin. The Rig Veda (II.23.1) invocation ‘Gananam tva ganapatim’ refers to Brihaspati, and in fact invokes different deities at different times, including Agni and Vishnu. It was the Ganapatyas in the 5th-6th century AD who established Ganesh as the ganapati of the Rig Veda; he was simultaneously elevated as elder (jyestha) brother of the historically older god, Skanda, because the mantra designated Ganapati as jyestharajam!!


The Mahabharata (critical ed.) does not mention Ganesh or Vinayaka; and term vinayaka in certain recensions of Shantiparva and Anusasanaparva are latter-day interpolations; ganeshvara (lord of hosts) is an epithet of Vishnu (Mbh. 13.135.79), which suggests the epic did not know Ganesh. The story that Ganesh served as Vyasa’s scribe to record the epic is not mentioned in the grantha manuscripts or Ksemendra’s Bharatamanjari. As late as 909 AD Rajasekhara asserts in Balabharata I.120 that Vinayaka was appointed lekhaka (scribe) for the Bharata Samhita or Mahabharata. 


As Ganesh is a composite god, many stories explain his birth. The most popular is the Shiva Purana version, whereby Ganesh was created by Parvati without the intervention of Shiva or any male (purusam nirmamau), from her bodily impurities (malasambhavam), so she could have an attendant of her own. After fashioning the image, the goddess immersed it in the sacred waters of the Ganga, and it came to life. Parvati claimed it as her son; the devas called the child Gangeya, son of Ganga.


The Puranas have different versions about the manner in which Ganesh acquired his elephant head. The popular story that he was beheaded by an angry Shiva, who later revived him with the decapitated head of an elephant to pacify the distraught goddess, is mentioned only in the Shiva, Skanda and Mahabhagavata Puranas. The Puranas fail to explain his solitary tusk.


Evidence that Ganesh was not a classical god can be deduced from the fact that he did not have his own vehicle. The mouse became the vahana of only five of his eight incarnations (Ekadanta, Mahodara, Gajanana, Lambodara and Dhumravarna), while Vakratunda rides the simha (lion), Vikata mayura (peacock) and Vighnaraja the sesha (divine serpent). Jaina iconography depicts Ganesh as a Yaksha of Tirthankara Parshvanatha; his vehicle is the tortoise. Jaina temples depict the god with other vahanas such as the elephant, ram or peacock. In Thailand, the god stands on a tortoise.


The choice of mouse as vahana identifies Ganesh as a folk deity. The Ganesh Purana says a rat frequently caused extensive damage in the ashram of Rishi Parasara, devouring grain, damaging clothes and books, and ruining the garden. Finally, Parasara’s son Gajamukha (Ganesh) caught the rat with his noose (pasa) and made it his mount, thus symbolically subjugating it. The rat symbolizes destruction, evil, obstacles to success, and must hence be controlled. Its status as vahan of Ganesh underlines the god’s humble origins as a gramadevata, subjugator of the enemy of village folk.


Ganesh’s evolving stature was ensconced forever once the god caught the imagination of the Maharashtrian bhakti saints. Jnanesvara in the thirteenth century elevated Ganesh to the pinnacle of Brahmanhood and lionized him as the saviour of his father Shiva. In Jnaneshvari, he identified Ganesh’s elephant head, twisted trunk and human body with the sacred syllable ‘Om’ (pronounced aum) wherein a represents the feet of Ganesa, u his large belly and m his large forehead. He said: “To see Ganesa thus is to visualize OM”.


Other Maharashtrian saints reverenced the god with equal devotion. Namdev exulted that Ganesh had the power to bestow knowledge of all branches of learning and make the dumb recite vedic mantras. He said Krishna could recover his son Pradyumna, who was stolen by a demon at birth, by worshipping Ganesh. Yudhisthira is said to have recovered his kingdom through the grace of Ganesh.


Sarasvati Gangadhara (15th century) wrote in Gurucharitra that Ganapati prevented Ravana from possessing the Shivalinga which would have made him invincible. Ekanatha (Rukminisvayambara) recounted that after his wedding with Rukmini, Krishna’s marriage party suffered for slighting Ganesh; Krishna himself placated Vinayaka to avert calamities.


Moraya Gosavi (13th–14th century) erected the famous Ganesh temple at Chinchwad near Pune. Samarth Ramdas (17th century) declared: “Ganesa is not only vighnaharta but mangalamurti and the bestower of all siddhis, powers of success.” The Peshwas adopted Ganapati as kuladevata, which entrenched his popularity among the masses.


In modern times, Ganapati’s status as pre-eminent deity was ensconced by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who made the ten-day public celebrations of Ganapati Bappa Morya an instrument of the political mobilisation of society in the colonial era. Its popularity as a national festival has grown in recent years.




Khandoba’s hazy origins can be traced to the tribes of the Deccan forests. He evolved from a local god into a respected regional deity whose devotees included several tribes, castes and strata of society, including royal families. His worship links up with the Shaiva sampradaya, but a measure of cross-pollination is visible with Vaishnava and Jaina traditions.


Khandoba was most likely the god of tribal food-gatherers and hunters in the forests and hills of the western Deccan. His sphere of influence broadly coincides with the present states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. He is variously known as Khandoba, Khanderaya (Maharashtra), Mallanna (Andhra), Mailara, Mairala, Mallaya (Karnataka).


Possibly on account of his forest origins, Khandoba is closely linked to the anthill, the legendary abode of snakes, and hence widely revered by forest tribes and pastoral groups as the fountainhead of wealth and material prosperity. The anthill has an ancient association with the sun; the Kharia tribe worships the sun with offerings made at anthills. At Jejuri, the most important jagrt kshetra (wakeful place) of Khandoba, the anthill is worshipped with bhandar (turmeric) during the annual Somvati Amavasya Jatra, turmeric being a substitute for gold.


In the hazy initial period of his evolution, Khandoba was also worshipped as a pillar (kantu) under the Katambu tree, a famous tribal symbol of divinity. The pillar, scholars observe, has an intimate connection with the Vedic sacrificial stake, yupa. We encounter the sacred pillar (stambha, khambha) in other tribal regions; Orissa provides the most notable instance in the form of goddess Khambeshwari. The pillar is an enduring pan-India symbol; Vishnu as Narasimha avatar burst forth from a pillar in the palace of king Hiranyakashipu. 


Khandoba and his principal wives, Mhalsa and Banai, are also worshipped as unhewn stone, pind or pindi, a pan-India practice that continues among tribals, villagers, and the so-called classic tradition. Khandoba appealed to all castes and groups in the Deccan. His most ardent devotees spanned tribals and shepherds (Dhangars, Gavlis), fishermen (Kolis), watchmen and ex-criminal castes (Ramoshis), traditional village service castes such as gardeners, tailors, leather workers, and former untouchable castes like Mangs and Mahars, peasant castes (Marathas, Kunbis), merchants, Jainas, Lingayats, kings, Brahmins and even some Muslims. The Martanda Vijaya says Khandoba combines bhakti and mukti and is accessible to all, irrespective of caste or religion (MV 29.30; 5:12: nene varna-jati-kula).


In the medieval period, the Desastha Brahmins adopted Khandoba as their kulasvamin. He was the tutelary deity of many reigning Maratha families with pastoral backgrounds, such as the Holkars, Gaikwads and Shindes. At some stage, Vishnu came to be identified as the brother-in-law of Khandoba. Khandoba’s rustic panth permeates southern Jaina traditions. Jainas recognize Mailara-Khandoba as a guardian of the tirthankara.


Khandoba/Mallari is the god of hunting tribes like Nishadas and Sabaras; even today, shepherds bring their ceremonial spears (an icon of the god) for the ceremonial hunt with the god at the Somvati Amavasya festival at Jejuri. Khandoba/Mailara is god of the Banajigas, a traditional Lingayat vani (merchant) caste. Khandoba’s wife, Mhalsa, is a Lingayat. He is an important deity in Malegaon (Osmanabad), a vital trade link between the northern and southern Deccan.


Khandoba’s annual hunting expedition on Somvati Amavasya bears uncanny similarity to the ashvamedha sacrifice. In old Vaghya songs, Khandoba circles the earth on a horse and the ‘hunt’ ends in a common bath of god and devotees in the river. Similarly in the Vedic sacrifice, the king takes a final bath (avabhrath), where he is joined by his followers who become free of sin. The Vajasaneyi Samhita (23, 17-19) identifies the sacrificial horse with Agni, Vayu and Surya (forms of Rudra); Khandoba is linked with fire symbolized in the flame. He is the sun as Martanda Bhairav and in the form of bhandar (turmeric). Like Rudra, he is associated with the horse and the dog.


The hunt provides the backdrop for Khandoba’s story. It facilitates his meeting with his second wife, the tribal shepherdess, Banai, and helps him establish his control over the power and wealth of the forest. Banai is a rich and beautiful ‘Mirdhin’ (head) of twelve Dhangar vadas (settlements), and owns nine lakh sheep. At another plane, her erotic relationship with the god turns into emotional bhakti closely paralleling the legend of Radha and Krishna. Her relationship with the god brings the pastoral Dhangars into the god’s spiritual fiefdom.


The festival illustrates the skill with which this rustic panth has integrated varied devotees, ideas and concepts. The Jatra begins with the preparation of the god’s palanquin in the temple courtyard, though the procession actually takes off only at the auspicious moment determined by a Brahmin, one of the deity’s eight ministers (Ashta Pradhan). Each of the participating ‘eighteen castes’ enjoys a special privilege in the festival.


Khandoba’s palanquin is borne by Marathas in the front and Ramoshis and Kolhatis at the rear. The utsav-murtis of Khandoba and Mhalsa are taken from the ‘Treasury’ to the Durbar Hall and placed in the palanquin by members of two different families of Guravas, non-Brahmin pujaris of Khandoba. A member of the barber caste shows the god a mirror, and the palanquin leaves the Durbar Hall after a pradakshina of the cave temple of Banai.


After visiting a Shaivite math, the procession halts at the Shiva temple built by Malharav Holkar of the Dhangar Khutekar (blanket weaver) sub-caste. The enterprising Holkar had risen to become a general of the Peshwas in the eighteenth century; he later founded the royal dynasty of Indore and adopted Khandoba as his family god. The procession crosses the border and town gate, and reaches the temple of Mariai, goddess of cholera, where the Hatkar Dhangars (shepherds) wait for darshan.


A Muslim traditionally entrusted with the care of the god’s horse now leads the horse far ahead of the procession; the Dhangars race to try to touch the horses’ hooves in a manner reminiscent of the Vedic ashvamedha in which a king’s horse roams through land later claimed by the conquering king.


As the palanquin reaches the river, Khandoba and Mhalsa are bathed with five nectarous substances (panchamrita) by all devotees without discrimination. The images are carried into the river, and Dhangars throw water on the Lord, a privilege acknowledged by the participating castes. The Son-Kolis, sea-fishermen from Mumbai, and other devotees join the common bath, and the images are carried back to the palanquin. The god is presented new clothes by the Brahmin Peshwa family which dresses him; a barber (Nhavi) shows him a mirror.


The procession proceeds to the goddess Rambhai, a celestial dancer in Indra’s heaven who was deified as a Murali (female devotee) in her incarnation in the Simpi (tailor) caste. It moves on to Babir, the Gavli-Dhangar god in Dhalavdi village, where villagers offer the palanquin-bearers a meal of millet bread. The next halt is at a Mali hamlet, where Khandoba visits his wife Phulai Malin of the Mali (gardener) caste. She was the first Murali and because of her Mali women have the privilege of selling davna (southernwood), jhendu (marigold), and bel (bilva) leaves at prime locations in Jejuri. The parikrama of the town complete, Khandoba returns to Jejuri.


The writer is Editor, and author, Adi Dev AryaDevata. A Panoramic View of Tribal Hindu Cultural Interface, Rupa, 2004

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