In amidst the fusillading frequency of my Ganesha posting this week, we had had a rather intriguing question. Namely, whether – given the irreducibly Elephantine iconography of Ganesha – there were any clear cognates for this in the Western (i.e. European) Indo-European sphere.
I have to say – none spring instantly to mind. Which doesn’t mean that the functional elements to Ganesha’s representation in this manner lack correlates – after all, those of our Sanskrit terms for ‘Elephant’ that have the same root as that for Sanskrit words for ‘Thunder’ (a most resounding Voice or Speech, indeed) present a clear ‘pointer’ in that direction, for a start. But more upon this some other time.
As the Elephantine head of Lord Ganesh is clearly not of Proto-Indo-European provenancy (and however cool it might seem, the millennia between the Urheimat and the extinction of the Wooly Mammoth from most of Eurasia should likely preclude a more archaic IE aesthetic ‘reconstruction’ along those lines in any case), nor something that seems to occur in the more archaic Vedic texts … this raises the logical question of just where it might have arrived from.
And, of course, ‘Why’.
Now, we’re not going to get into the general comparative theology of Ganesha here. Suffice to say, in essence, it is a case of ‘Like Father, Like Son’ – with a suite of Brihaspati elements directly inherited from the relevant Facing of the Sky Father.
And, alongside this – eminently fitting connotations that associate with the Elephant Head. These, also, are reasonably direct:
Expressions of Power, of Potency, of Poesy even – as an Elephant is renowned for both memory and intellect … but also for that certain ‘Thunderous Voice’ which forms their linguistically defining feature in those terms (Sanskrit ‘Gaja’ (गज) and more especially ‘Garja’ (गर्ज), which mean ‘Elephant’ : as compared to the ‘Garj-‘ stem for ‘Garjana’ / ‘Garjati’ (गरजना / गर्जति) – terms for ‘Thunder’, ‘Roaring’, ‘Bellowing’; and a thundercloud, too, I suppose, is large, grey, and roaring), their Royal linkages, and that fiercely formidable commitment to Guarding certain sites of sacred importance to them (most pointedly the elephantine ‘equivalent’ to the Cremation Grounds wherein we might find certain Deifics … ).
Or, phrased another way – The ‘Elephant Head’ most definitely ‘Fits’ the figure. But that is retroactive reasoning – and does not necessarily answer our inquiry as to where the iconographic feature may have developed from.
In order to take a more serious stab at answering that, we must saddle up and head back in time.
And more specifically, a piece I penned almost a year ago looking at the famed Ganesh of Kabul.
Which we shall quote from now:
“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.
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.
Yet 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. And, pointedly, ‘Parvati’.
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. “
Now, to this we could add further commentary discussing the Shaivite holy-sites and linkages of eastern Afghanistan proximate to this … and at some point in the perhaps not-all-that-distant future, I do intend to return to a piece half-written about the same time as the above in order to more meaningfully explore same.
We might also seek to engage in a comparative analysis of some other ‘loka-l’ tellings for the origination of Ganesha’s head from elsewhere across the Hindusphere to see how far back they go, and whether there are other salient characteristics to be extracted out to (better in)form a mythic typology.
But for now, I think that it may be enough.
Is this conclusive? No. Is it intriguing? I most definitely think so.
Perhaps Ganesha bears within that mighty and all-memorializing Head of His, the remembrance of when Afghanistan was Hindu – and perhaps the Great Guardsman, Ganapati, has as His iconographic origination … that well-known invasion-route that demands the surest sentinel vision.
ॐ Sri Ganeshaya Namah