Tracing the origin of Ganesha worship to Skanda’s time
by Jayasree Saranathan on 18 Sep 2021 2 Comments

Anywhere you look around there are more Ganesha temples than Muruga temples in Tamil Nadu. This comparison comes from the premise that Muruga is considered to be a Tamil God while Ganesha is not! First we should understand this is a politician’s version and can be outwitted by a simple logic that if Muruga is a Tamil God, then Ganesh also is a Tamil God, in his capacity as elder sibling of Muruga. So this argument that one is a Tamil God and the other is an imported God is without logic.


I am looking at the question why Ganesha worship is more popular than Muruga worship. I begin with the iconographic evidences of Ganesha, to know from when murti of Ganesha started appearing in Tamil Nadu. The earliest murti of Ganesha found so far is in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BCE. The next one appears in Indonesia in 1st century CE. The two are similar to how Ganesha appears now.


Chronologically, the next place is Afghanistan where a standing Ganesha with two hands is seen in the 5th century CE. The style is unusual to us. By the 6th century CE, many Ganesha forms appear in art in China; the imagery is not familiar to us. There is even a twin Ganesha embracing each other found in China and Japan. Ganesha appears in other poses too, which are totally different from the Ganesha we know. Buddhism was the cause of spread of Ganesha of this kind that was worshiped for tantric purpose.


There is a Ganesha look-alike found in Harappa 5000 years ago: an image of an elephant face with human like eyes and a crown.


It was only around the 6th century CE that the first Ganesha appeared in Tamil Nadu, in Pillaiyar patti. This image is the continuing one and resembles the Ganesha of Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The hint on the background story of this Pillaiyar comes from the Tamil Brahmi writings at the base, giving the name of the sculptor. So this is the work of a migrant from the Harappan, the region of Afghanistan.


Actually Tamil Nadu is expected to show early signs of Ganesha worship than from any other place, since he is supposed to be the elder brother of Muruga. This makes me surf through old Tamil Sangam texts only to find that Muruga was the only son of his parents, but Ganesha entered the scene sometime later.


Digging further, I found that Muruga had his favorite royal elephant, “PiNi Mukham”. Sangam texts often speak of this elephant as a daring, powerful one because of whom Muruga was able to score victories over his enemies. Moreover, Muruga lived in Kurunji, the hill tracts, where elephant was a carrier useful in transportation of goods and as a vehicle.


This elephant helped him in his love affair too. Kanda Puranam narrates that Muruga tricked Valli to fall in love with him by making his brother Pillaiyar appear as an elephant, frightening her; the trick worked. We come across references to this event in Tamil Sangam texts when the heroine fell in love with the hero in whom she took refuge when chased by an elephant; the hero saved her, like Muruga, from the elephant.


The elephant connection to Muruga is found in Sangam texts of women visiting Muruga’s temple doing ‘puja’ to the elephant of the temple treating it as the elephant of Muruga. Only women did this puja by smearing kumkum on the head, face and trunk of the elephant, poured water and flowers on the elephant, fixed fans on the ears and placed umbrella on the head! Then huge balls of food were given to the elephant and it was a practice to eat the left overs as prasada.


The purpose of this worship is also given in the texts; married women were blessed with a long married life while unmarried women got married soon. The women had worshipped the elephant of Muruga to be blessed with a happy and long married life. Before we dismiss this as something odd and not in vogue today, let me point out a version from Vinayaka Puranam where Vinayaka blessed the planet Mars as getting a name “Mangal” for having witnessed the marriage of Vinayaka with Siddhi in his auspicious form of red colour!


So we find a connection between Vinayaka in red (auspicious) in his marriage with Siddhi (Siddhi Vinayaka) and Mars, the planet, having Muruga as the lord becoming a significator for Mangal, which in ordinary parlance we relate with Mangalyam. The olden Tamil practice of women worshiping the elephant with kumkum for Mangalyam (stability of married life) seems to be the precursor to this story in Vinayaka Purana.


Since the elephant of Muruga had facilitated the fructification of the marriage of Muruga with Valli and a happy married life thereafter, elephant worship in temples of Muruga started initially. This must have been in vogue right from the time of Muruga, who lived 12,000 years ago. Since elephant was found in plenty in Kurinji lands, keeping the elephant in the temples of Muruga must have been an old practice which spread to other temples in course of time. The upkeep of many elephants in temples of Kerala even today must have been a remnant of this practice as Kerala is predominantly hilly / mountainous terrain.


The elephant of Muruga being very dear to Muruga came to be regarded as the elder brother of Muruga and in due course was depicted as a deity with an elephant face. The red-faced Vinayaka (made so by kumkum as a mark of auspiciousness during his marriage) appearing with his wives is Siddhi Vinayaka, now popularly present in Mumbai, is a concept of olden Tamil lands!


The worship of elephant in olden Tamil lands must have given rise to the name “Pillaiyar”. Pillai means child or son. Like a little son, the elephant is mischievous, fat and fond of eating. Even today we have the practice of offering food (fruits mostly) to temple elephants and receive its blessings by the placing of its trunk on our head. The food balls offered to the elephant in the Sangam age had become the ‘Modak’ or ‘Kozhukattai’ made of rice. The iconography of Pillaiyar must have evolved from this.


The umbrella placed on its head continues to be customary in the temples of Kerala and in the Vinayakar Chaturti Puja we do at home. Without the umbrella Vinayaka is not worshiped in Tamil Nadu even today. This practice is absent in other regions but compulsory in Tamil lands, clearly indicating a long-standing practice from the Sangam Age of worshiping the elephant of Muruga, regarded as the elder brother of Muruga, in his temples.


There is an opinion that Vinayaka Puja became widespread only following Tilak’s efforts, but no. The Journal of Literature and Science in an issue published by the British before the birth of Tilak refers to Vinayaka Caturthi festival in Madras Presidency as it is celebrated today. Note the name ‘Vinayaka’ – it was not Ganesha! This is the only festival when the deity made of clay is freshly bought for the festival and immersed later. The only difference between then and now is that people avoided looking at the moon on that night in the belief that they would be falsely accused if they looked at the moon. The Journal says that Krishna was accused because he looked at the moon on Vinayaka Cathurti day! So the celebration of Vinayaka Cathurti had been in vogue since Krishna’s times!


It was so even from Rama’s times as we come across a verse in Valmiki Ramayana in Pattabhisheka sarga that ‘Vinayaka’ and similar deity would stay fixated in the houses of those who recited Ramayana! Vinayaka festival/ worship is a household festival/ worship aimed at getting auspiciousness, while worship of Muruga is a temple festival as with Skanda Shashti.


With the beginnings coming from Tamil Sangam age for Vinayaka worship, we find a change in concept in Puranas that refer to ‘Ganesha”. Ganesha means ‘the lord or commander of Ganas of Shiva’. Though there are many stories of origin of Ganesha, a particular one found in Vayu Purana talks about short and stout Ganas, the attendants of Shiva and Parvati.


Once when king Divodasa was ruling from Kashi, Shiva wanted to occupy Kashi. He asked Ganesha, also known as Nikumbha (remember Nikumbhini, the female guardian deity in Lanka in Ramayana?) to facilitate his entry into Kashi. Nikumbha appeared in the dream of a barber asking him to install him outside the city and do worship. People started coming to Nikumbha for boons and Nikumbha gratified all. When Divodasa himself came to him seeking boon for getting progeny, Nikumbha didn’t oblige. The infuriated Divodasa abused him; Nikumbha cursed him and left the city, following which Shiva entered and occupied the city.


The concept of Gana and Ganesha appears from then onwards. One can see a number of ganas including the elephant faced Ganesha – all short and stout and mischievous – under the panel of Shiva-Parvati in temples. One can see Veerabhadra at one end and Ganesh at the other end with sapta mata in between. Normally Muruga is associated with sapta mata-s. Mother goddess, Muruga and Ganesha evolved together as Shaktam, Skandam and Ganapatyam. In these forms, shamanism and Tantricism were chief causes for worship. Many of the Ganesha images in strange forms found in other parts of Asia including one in Angkor Wat are indicative of tantric practices associated with Ganesha worship.


A relic is still in vogue is breaking coconuts for Ganesha. The chief aim was to drive out evil spirits and enemies. Tantric practices associated with Ganesha were at a peak till the 12th century throughout India promoted by Kapalikas, Kalamukhas and Pasupatas – all heretic sects. In contrast, the Tamil Pillaiyar or Vinayaka (meaning supreme leader) was auspicious and confined within one’s home or as elephant worship in temple.


Till 2000 years ago this was so: the Sangam Age practice. After that, the first appearance of Pillaiyar in iconography happens in the 6th century in Pillaiyar patti. The sculptor was ‘Erukkaattoor Perum Thacchan’, erukku signifying the special flower Erukku that is used only for Vinayaka even today in Tamil lands. There are Tamil verses in Sangam text of worship using Erukku flower. This must be an indication of worship of Pillaiyar, the elephant or image of the elephant. It changed over to the current form in the Common Era.





Pillaiyar is installed wherever there are certain trees such as peepal (arasa maram), water way, and anthill where snakes reside. These are the places the hero of the Sangam had to cross to come to meet his lady love. The heroine would be worried about his safety through these troubles. We don’t know what deity she worshiped, but seeing the presence of Pillaiyar in these places, it sounds logical that she had prayed to the elephant of Muruga, Pillaiyar, to safeguard the hero and help in the success of their love affair.


In due course wherever there were water ways, Vinayaka was installed, partly to safeguard the water ways from pollution and partly to protect the trees and anthills that served as markers to identify underground water ways.


In this way numerous Pillaiyars have sprung up all over Tamil Nadu. The worship of a deity is related to the boons associated with that deity. Pillaiyar is for auspiciousness, removing obstacles and protection from evils. All these are needed for everyone at all times. So Pillaiyar continues to have a wide following.


In contrast, Muruga was a warrior god, a commander-in-chief. The soldier going to war would raise the slogan, “Veera vel, Vettru vel”. Kaushalya prayed for protection by Muruga when Rama went into exile. Krishna identified himself with Muruga as the chief among commanders. So the popularity of a God lies in what we gain from him.


Pillaiyar worship is popular because of the benefits supposed to be granted by him. Also there are no great rules in consecrating him. Just a lump of clay or mud or turmeric is enough to consecrate him anywhere. His power doesn’t diminish because of this. For this reason Ganesha temples are more in number compared to any other deity all over India.



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