The Ganesha Of Kabul – And His Custodian Guard [ Arte-Facts #14 ]

In our field, we are so often delving into impressive legends of long ago – myths about men who once lived and wrought deeds so mighty that they seem frankly ‘incredible’ (in the old sense of the term) today. And that can leave one quite jaded about the modern era for reasons that ought be obvious. After all, it seems so lamentably rare to encounter such larger-than-life occurrences in our own time – to the point that one might be forgiven for either thinking that the archaic age has been over-hyped, or that heroism died with its flame extinguished ever so long ago. 

And yet … every so often, we come across something rather astounding which renews our faith that even amidst all the turgid horrendousness of the modern age – some lights really do still shine out. Not only ‘brighter than others’, but as a beautifully luminous exemplar to all the rest of us who are able to see more clearly thanks to their glow. 

This is one of those latter stories. 

Pictured, is Pandit [Priest] Rajesh Kumar. And pictured also – is an impressive millennium-and-a-half ancient Ganesha Murti, found in Afghanistan around Gardez in the mid-20th century, and then taken to Kabul where it was installed in a Hindu Mandir [Temple] there. 

Now this latter detail should prove rather remarkable all by itself. As here we have a relic of Afghanistan’s Hindu past – several centuries, most of a millennium even following the Islamization of the area, being unearthed and thence re-installed for the very purpose to which it was originally intended. And in what was, even in the mid-late 20th century under the socialists, hardly the most hospitable of climes. We often talk about resurrecting the Past here – bringing back the flame of ancient days. These Hindus, these Hindus of Afghanistan – actually did it ! It brings a tear to my eye ! 

And yet, what makes it even more remarkable is that this Temple then continued to exist, with its most illustrious denizen, even despite the roiling turmoil which has engulfed Afghanistan in more recent times still. 

Indeed, the reason it had come to my attention is due to the actions of this aforementioned Pandit – who had declared at a time when many were fleeing the country and the Americans, the mightiest (human) military force upon this globe of ours were retreating likewise … that he was going to remain there. 

As the man himself put it: “Some Hindus have urged me to leave Kabul and offered to arrange for my travel and stay.”

“But my ancestors served this Mandir for hundreds of years. I will not abandon it. If Taliban kills me, I consider it my Seva [Devotional Service].”

I had held off on commenting about this story and endeavouring to bring it to a broader audience until I had successfully confirmed with an associate with connection to Afghanistan that it was, in fact, true. And Ganesh Chaturthi seemed the most ideal point in time to speak upon this – as this is, after all, in close accordance with our theme of “Ganesh Gets In Everywhere”. Even Afghanistan, even Kabul under Taliban control – there He is. Just as He had been since long ago. Not in the sense of being buried under the sands of the hinterland, but actively worshipped, protected, venerated. As He Should Be. 

Now before we get into discussing the Murti, it is perhaps necessary to elucidate some measure of historical context – for you see, the situation of being, in effect, under siege in what was once the native land, is regrettably not unfamiliar either to this Murti or to its Custodes. 

The name upon the Murti that is the commissioner of its carving and installation is ‘Shahi Khingala’. And unfortunately, we are not quite sure which Khingala this refers to. Some suggest that it is a Huna King of the 5th century – although this conflicts somewhat with both the potential archaeological evidence for the statue itself (which appears to prefer a later 6th or 7th century dating), and the identification of the ruler as being a Shahi, and therefore of a later regime. One rather enlightening possibility is that this Khingala might have been one of the earlier ‘Shahi’ rulers found around Kapisi, who were forerunners to the later and much more well-known ‘Turk Shahi’ and ‘Hindu Shahi’ of later centuries; and who ruled from the seat of the Asvakas … the ‘Horsemen’ or ‘Cavaliers’, whose name may even survive today in “Afghanistan” itself. This would quite handily resolve our timelining issue, at the cost of acknowledging much of the uncertainty about just what was going on around that area at that particular point in time. We shall not seek to get heavily into those matters here, except to note that the identification often propounded online of this as being a “Hindu Shahi” ruler is … both correct and not – insofar as the ruler was unquestionably a Hindu and a Shahi, but the Hindu Shahi dynasty itself is a specific later occurrence. 

What is important to note for our purposes, is twofold. 

First, that there is a long record for Elephant representation in the iconography of Hindu Afghanistan. I shall not get into a huge depth of detail here, but suffice to say we have a persistent record for Elephantine deific expression running back pretty much as far as we can go. Greco-Bactrian coinage attests, for instance, an Elephant head in relation to the ‘Kavi(pi)shiye Nagara Devata’ – the ‘Deity of the City of Kapisi’ ; and this is of significant interest for reasons we shall shortly explore. 

The second reason, which we shall return to later on, is the conditions which came to characterize the reign of these Shahi dynasties – and how these, too, have some certain ‘resonancy’ for the situation of Afghanistan today. 

But to return to the point on this Elephantine deific of Eastern Afghanistan, we find ourselves indebted to the traveller’s account of one Xuanzang (also anglicized as Yuan Chwang or Hsuan Tsang), who directly confirms a genius of the nearby mountain to Kapisa of elephantine characteristic – indeed, doubly so given his phonetic presentation of the name of said mountain as ‘Pi-lo-sho-lo’ … or, in its original Sanskrit formulation: ‘Pilasara’ – also known as ‘Pilugiri’. What does this latter term translate as? ‘The Mountain of the Elephant’. The former term, Pilasara, meanwhile, would likely mean ‘Pool/Waterfall of the Elephant’ – and that is most interesting for reasons we shall return to momentarily.  

To place this in context of the various Hellenic-infused evidence from the numismatics, it is clear that there is a relationship for the Elephant deific acting in a protective capacity to the Mountain and the City – which is as we should expect, given there is a longstanding coterminity between the terms and conceptual understandings for ‘Mountain’ and ‘Settlement / Fort / City’ in Indo-European mytholinguistics, as I have covered at some length elsewhere [see, for instance, my previous ‘Bharat Mata And The Indo-European Deific of National Identity’; and other points, including those pertaining to Cybele and the Corona Muralis, etc.]. This gives an intriguing potential interpretation to some of these aforementioned Greco-Bactrian etc. coins, as they bear a throned figure accompanied by the head of an elephant and what’s identified as a ‘Pilos’ (a sort of conical hat usually – although here, it would appear that the conical shape is of rather differing interpretation). 

Academic opinion is divided as to whether the throned figure is intended to be male or female – and therefore, whether this is Zeus, or a female Goddess of the City; with the corresponding question of whether the elephant head is intended to represent an additional figure that acts in protection of whichever deific, or whether, indeed, the elephantine visage is intended as an alternate ‘face’ for the deity in question. If it were the latter, this should prove rather intriguing, as an ‘Elephant-faced’ Zeus would accord rather interestingly with the fact that the major Ganesha invocation (and, for that matter, epithetic theonyms – Gana-Esha, indeed) is a RigVedic hailing for the Sky Father which has been repurposed to His Son in more recent times. However, I consider this to be rather unlikely upon the face of things – and the result of a longstanding presumption that a deific associated with a mountain, in the Classical imagination, ought be Zeus. There is some currency for this in the Hellenic sphere to the West, of course – and also, for that matter, in the East, where we find Lord Shiva likewise strongly associated with high Mountains even to this day all the way from the Himalayas to Indonesia. Dionysus in relation to Mt Meru might be of similar potential provenancy. Although there is also an association of female deific figures with the Mountain(s), as we have, again, repeatedly demonstrated in the course of our previous work – including not only the aforementioned ‘Bharat Mata’ piece but also the recent work on Artemis Orthia. The ‘Mountain’ upon the coin, in case you were wondering, should likely prove to be that ‘Pilos’ – instead of a hat idly floating by the side of the throne, becoming the Mountain which was proximate to the city in question instead. 

Presuming for a moment that the enthroned figure is, infact, a female national / city personification – as seems eminently likely to be the case in light of an array of evidence we shall leave unaddressed here (see M. K. Dhavalikar’s Origin of Ganesa, for instance, for further expansion upon various point of interest in that regard) – then this makes for a rather remarkable discovery. 

The myth of Ganesha – the one everybody knows – pertains to how He attained His Elephantine head. We shan’t retell it here – except to note that its key and core salient detail has Ganesha standing guard over a most particular Mountain that is in a pool. 

Or, to phrase things in terms perhaps more familiar – the young Ganesha stands guard over His Mother, Parvati [‘Mountain’, to translate literally] as She bathes in a pool. The elephant is, of course, a prominent emblem of regal power in the SubContinent and its sphere of influence, however it is also known to be absolutely ferociously tenacious in its defence of the grounds it considers sacred – the proverbial ‘Elephant Graveyard’, for instance. It therefore seems rather appropriate that Lord Shiva, Ganesha’s Father , would choose to bestow an Elephantine visage to this young Custodian in recognition of His Role. 

All of this, taken together, suggests that the environs proximate to Kapisi played stage to a loka-lization for this core essence-tial myth of Ganesha; the ‘Elephant’s Pool’ [Pilasara] being located proximate (indeed likely upon) to the nearby Mountain [known both as Pilasara and Pilagiri], and the Goddess, the Wife of the Sky Father, Who is also so frequently encountered as both ‘Mountain’ and City / National Deific being found at both locales. Under the stately protection of, just as with the mythic template for the occurrence, an Elephant-visaged Guardian – that is to say, Ganesha. ‘The Gana As Custodian Guard’, indeed!

And that is important to note given what ‘Gana-Esha’, ‘Gana-Pati’ actually means … ‘Lord of the Host’, ‘Chief of the Armed Company’, perhaps ‘Lord-Sentinel’ or ‘Commander of the Watch’ if we are to be somewhat figurative in our interpolation to better explicate here the meaning. This is partially why Ganesha is encountered at the entrance to Hindu temples to this day – because He keeps watch on the Gate via which we enter. And protects the House of the Gods from those who would seek to despoil and assail Their Domain. An admirable deific, therefore, for Pt. Kumar of Kabul to be both availed by and to act in evident emulation of here in this modern day. 

Now before we address our second point, concerning the historical situation of the Shahis – and, indeed, Hindu Afghanistan as a whole throughout much of the past 1,500 years … we should turn to the actual characteristics of this fine Murti.

The inscription reads that “This Great and Beautiful Maha-Vinayaka [another name for Ganesha] was consecrated by the renowned Shahi King, the illustrious Shahi Khingala, Who was Parama-Bhattaraka-Maharajadhiraja [‘Highest-Venerable-Great-King-of-Kings’], in the Eighth Year [of His Reign], in the Maha-Jyestha-Masa [‘Great Month of Jyeshtha’], Shukla-Paksha [‘Bright Fortnight’], Trayodashi [‘Thirteenth’], Vishakha Nakshatra [‘[Under the] Astrological Sign of Vishakha’ – the ‘Forked’] and Simha Lagna [‘Leo Ascendant’]”. 

Or, phrased another way, the name of the commissioning king along with the astrologically codified dating. 

The surviving statue may be tentatively suggested to have been in Alidha posing – an iconographic convention for an archer, his feet in the manner you can see here. This would therefore imply that the arms, when they were in full form, bore a bow and arrow in the process of being drawn back. Although obviously, in the absence of further surviving remains this must, by necessity, remain conjectural. As we can also see, the ears (which some commentators have noted seem almost closer to ‘wings’ in their style of carving here), trunk, and tusks have also become detached – although, to be sure, one of those is supposed to be in such a fashion, per the mythology and customary depictions of the God. 

Upon the brow, there is an Ardha-Mukuta – a ‘Half-Crown’. This, iconographically, connoted a Commander of the Army [‘SenaPati’] or other High Executor [‘MahaMatra’] of the King, or even a YuvaRaja [‘Young King’ – what we would, perhaps, term the ‘Heir Apparent’ in modern English]. It is not hard to see how such connotation is eminently apt for Ganesha. His Father, of course, being the Ishvara – the God-Emperor, and His Mother the Radiant Queen of the Heavens, the Universe, and All.

Other adornments include a Kanthi [‘Necklet’] and a rather impressive Naga-Yajnopavita – that is to say, the Sacred Thread comprised of a Serpent; an iconographic detail of some especial prominency in the Shaivite (but also Shakta) sphere of things, the Yajnopavita itself referring to membership of the Dvija-Varnas – the Twice-Born Castes – and also visually linking Him to His Father, Lord Shiva. It likewise occurs within the Ganesha Sahasranamah [the Thousand Name hymnal to Ganesha], wherein we find Him hailed as ‘SarpaYajnopavitay

Interestingly, the Antariya [‘Lower Garment’] appears to be comprised of a lionskin, as can be seen via the prominent claws, head, and other such features. The wearing of a lionskin is certainly a prominent identifier of a particular Son of the Sky Father in the Classical imagining – however, here it is instead a party to a broader convention, as seen with, for instance, His Father’s famed tiger-skin garmentry. There is a point of coterminous commonality with the Heraklean / Herculean lionskin, insofar as the prowess required to best such a fearsomely formidable beast speaks volumes for its wearer. 

There is more which could most certainly be said pertaining to the iconography of this statue (and, for that matter, Ganesha more generally) – but I think we shall leave those points for others to make. For now, at any rate. 

Also to be left for another time is what I had initially intended the final paragraphs of this piece to contain – a cursory overview of the Hindu regimes of the last few centuries of the 1st millennium A.D. which reigned in Afghanistan. 

Why? Because it is such a tale, that I found it impossible to keep to ‘once over very lightly’ fashion; and it would be a disservice to even attempt to do so. 

So instead, I shall simply state the essence of it.

Hinduism was once the dominant faith of the Afghan sphere. If you know where and how to look – whether with an archaeologist’s trowel, or with an erudite eye within the realms of literature and museums’ worth of artefacts – then you can still see this … the varying ‘high-water marks’ where the wave broke and finally rolled back. However, the rather remarkable thing I had observed is that characterizing the Hindu dynasties of those last few centuries in the region … was an indomitable will to take everything that was thrown at them, and still be there. Not to be a high-water mark of an oncoming wave – but to be the steady, redoubtable rock upon which the waves themselves should break and retreat from. 

We see this with the Turk Shahi when they were still a significantly Hindu polity. In 665 AD, a mere 33 years following Muhammad’s death, Arab armies succeeded in taking Kabul from them. It would not be the last time that Muslims conquered it – and yet, it would also not be the last time that Hindus would be found there, either (and before somebody calls me up on this, it is important to note that yes, the Turk Shahi kingdom was substantively Hindu. Don’t take my word for it, instead consult our aforementioned Chinese traveller, Hsuan Tsang, observing that just prior to this, Hindus remained in the majority of the kingdom – with Buddhism ‘tolerated’).

Yet within a few years, the Turk Shahi had managed to not only reconquer Kabul – but also liberate significant swathes of other territory as well. 

Now, to be fair, the tale of the Turk Shahi is a rather sad one – as a little more than a century following their recapture of Kabul, the Turk Shahi ruler of the day was forced to submit to the Abbasid Caliph. And then, following a rather disastrous backfiring of an attempted power-play, a subsequent Turk Shahi regent some 35 years later in 815 was forced to convert to Islam himself. What’s interesting is that these significant further reversals appear to have been somewhat coterminous with the increasing Buddhist orientation of the regime – something which we can tell due to the nature of the ‘tribute’ sent by that last Turk Shahi king back to Mecca. Namely, a singularly impressive Buddha depiction – in keeping with the custom enforced upon various converts to the earlier era of Islamic religion whereby they would consciously disavow their previous faith through iconoclasm and/or sending its major devotional focus to be displayed as a trophy at the Ka’aba in Mecca. 

I do not seek to suggest that it was because the Turk Shahi had moved away from Hinduism and become increasingly Buddhist that they suffered such reversals of fortune – but however it came about, it is demonstrably the case and demonstrably sad that they wound up bereft of the Gods of their forefathers in the end. 

However even here, there is hope – a rather remarkable occurrence, in fact. For while the strength of the Turk Shahi rulers may have failed, especially in terms of their protection and upholding of the Dharma and support for the DevaRajya – the strength of Hindus did not. 

The last Turk Shahi ruler, a somewhat hapless fellow by the name of Lagaturman, was deposed by his own Minister – a pointedly Hindu Brahmin by the name of Kallar, who then incepted another dynasty … the aforementioned Hindu Shahi.

And this is where I really must exert some self-control to avoid going on at great length as to the course of that particular dynasty – a legend worthy of an intergenerational Norse Saga it is so abundant with heroic doomed stands, remarkable courage, and incredible besting of seemingly insurmountable odds. They, too, managed to lose – and then regain – Kabul as well as other swathes of territory on multiple occasions; and in the end, after having resisted no mere Arabs, but the fearsome onslaught of Mahmud of Ghazni and his ilk for near two hundred years … even despite no longer even having a kingdom, they kept on doing the exact same thing over and over. Refusing to be enduringly conquered. Seriously, it is difficult to overstate – toward the end, they had been driven out of their previous capital and holdings, and somehow managed to pull together a multi-national Hindu coalition of kingdoms from all across the North and Central regions of India to oppose the Ghaznavids. It was apparently such an inspiring effort that, as the Muslim chronicler Firishta puts it – “Hindu women sold their jewels and sent the money from distant parts to be used against the Musalmans. Their poorer sisters, who had no jewels to sell, worked feverishly at the spinning-wheel or as hired labourers to be able to send something to the men of the army.”

The battle in question, fought in 1008 AD, did not go the Hindu coalition’s way – defeat was snatched from the seeming jaws of victory due to an elephant’s panic just as the Hindu host was on the cusp of triumph. Yet even following the disastrous aftermath of this reversal, they refused to give in. The Ghaznavids forced the ouster of the Hindu Shahi from their capital and now much-reduced heartland – the Hindu Shahi relocated into the mountains, occupied a temple-fortress, and swiftly rebuilt to be able to put another army into the field against Mahmud less than half a decade later. Again, I must restrain myself from going into depth and detail about the ensuing campaign – but suffice to say that history somewhat repeated. The Ghaznavids thinking they had subjugated and erased from the pages of history the Hindu Shahi – and with them, the major vestiges of independent Hindu resistance along the invasion-corridor into North India … only to find that the Hindu Shahi had once more managed to seemingly resurrect, dig in at new locations (in this case, Lohkot – twice, in fact; successfully protecting Hindu Kashmir in the process), and exact a bloody toll from the numberless hordes of Mahmud. In doing so, I have absolutely no doubt that – even though it might have looked quite forlorn at the time – they actually changed the course of history. 

It is not for nothing that the Iranian Muslim writer Al Biruni, who had served under Mahmud and accompanied him into India on various of his later incursions, had this to say of Ghazni’s direst foe: 

“The Hindu Shahiya are now extinct, and of the whole house there is no longer the slightest remnant in existence. We must say that, in all their grandeur, they never slackened in the ardent desire of doing that which is good and right, that they were men of noble sentiment and noble bearing.”

It is definitely the case that thanks to the Ghaznavids and their earlier predecessors (as well as certain much more recent ones … ), that we lack very much at all to detail the existence of the Hindu Shahi. What we know has been painstakingly reconstructed off of fragmentary attestations cobbled together from coins, passing references, occasional artefacts of other kinds … and, of course, the testaments of their enemies. And yet, this is not the same thing as to say that the legacy of the Hindu Shahi is in any great doubt. 

As I have said – and as I do intend to expand upon at greater length and grandeur in a subsequent piece to prove my point more thoroughly – their actions for those two centuries in acting as the bulwark, the rampart, the hope … they held the line, and helped to preserve Hindu civilization. It’s as simple as that. 

It is true that they were eventually overwhelmed, and went down fighting – but in their absence, one can only ponder with horror how much more despoilment could have been wrought by the architect of the iconoclasm of Somnath, Thanesar, and so many other sites besides. 

Where I am going with this, I think, is that these actions – they resonate, out across the generations and the centuries. Not simply in terms of being able to marvel at their outcome and the ripple-impacts of this or that battle upon the coursing streams of causality as they wend their way toward us here in the present. But also in terms of setting forth the template for us to be inspired by. A ‘challenge’, if you like, for us to take up – as lain down by those who have gone before. To live up to their great and glorious standard – or, at least, to live in trying to. 

Pandit Rajesh Kumar is not exactly singlehandedly holding off a Muslim invasion of India, nor is he endeavouring to cobble together a kingdom out there in Kabul (at least, as far as I know). Yet what he IS doing, is giving tacit, tangible expression to exactly that resonancy I had spoken of so approvingly earlier. 

The experience of Hindus in Afghanistan over the past millennium and a half – even longer, in fact – has been a rather arduous one.  Under constant and continual threat not merely of expulsion – but active, outright, overt, and downright deliberate “erasure” (in multiple senses and contexts) alongside this. Not merely lives, but also memories! So that today, nobody could possibly contemplate that Afghanistan once used to be a Hindu territory – nor, for that matter, that there might be such a thing as a Hindu Mandir in operation even ‘midst a country being run by the inheritors of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and those malignly aforementioned Ghaznavids et co. 

So just as Ganesha – Ganapati , Vinayaka – is a Sentinel, a Soldier standing watchful over the aperture to what is both possible and present and piously imperative above all … so, too, do we find Pt. Kumar acting as just such a Protector. 

Not only of that blessed Ganesha Murti – although also, quite importantly, of that. 

But also of what that Murti represents. 

A Heritage, a History, a Future – and all of Hindu civilization. 

Not to mention, of course, a certain God – Who really does seem to Get In Everywhere ! 

To Pt. Kumar , we can only commend his courage, his sense of duty – and say but two things:

‘Good Luck’ (which, as one of my Pandits at my own Mandir here used to observe, is an idiomatic rendering of remarkable simplicity for ॐ नमः शिवाय ) … and 

Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitaha.

May That Which He is Protecting – Protect Him Also. 

Earlier, I mentioned that there is a particular RigVedic Hymnal which has provided a modern and prominent Ganesha invocation. That is RV II 23 – and in particular, line 1. 

It is, of course, more properly a verse which is oriented toward Brihaspati – and, via the co-identification of this most august (indeed, jovial – jupiterian) figure with Rudra and the Sky Father deific complex, it should therefore be thought of as thusly offered up to Ganesha’s Father. Therefore, perhaps, rendering its later employment for Ganesha specifically a case of, we may say, “Like Father, Like Son”. 

However the line from that particular RigVedic Hymnal which springs to my mind here in closing is another – 

4 Thou Leadest with Good Guidance and Preservest Men; Distress o’ertakes not him who offers Service to Thee.
Him who hates Prayer Thou Scorchest, Brhaspati, Obliterate hostile fury: Herein is Thy Great Mightiness.

Or, in the original – 

सुनीतिभिर्नयसि त्रायसे जनं यस्तुभ्यं दाशान्न तमंहो अश्नवत् ।
ब्रह्मद्विषस्तपनो मन्युमीरसि बृहस्पते महि तत्ते महित्वनं ॥

Hail to Ganesha 

Hail to the Guardians 

जय गणेश, जय गणेश, जय गणेश देवा ।
माता जाकी पार्वती, पिता महादेवा ॥

One thought on “The Ganesha Of Kabul – And His Custodian Guard [ Arte-Facts #14 ]

  1. Pingback: On A Potential Afghan Origination For The Elephant Visage Of Lord Ganesha | arya-akasha

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