Story: NGUYEN HOANG HUONG DUYEN
Photos: PHAM PHUNG, STOCKS
In Hindu mythology, Ganesha is the deity of wisdom and good fortune who broke off a tusk to write the famous Mahabharata epic. He is widely revered and loved by many Hindus in India and Southeast Asia. Since Hinduism was one of the two major religions of the ancient Champa people in Vietnam, they created many distinctive Hindu stone idols, including a standing statue of Ganesha that was recognized as a National Treasure at the end of 2020.
During their excavations of My Son in 1903, the archaeologist Henri Parmentier and his partners discovered this Ganesha statue in the E5 Tower of My Son sanctuary. The sandstone idol depicts the elephant-headed Ganesha with a potbelly, a tusk, and a third eye on his forehead. He is shown wearing necklaces and bracelets and with a Sesa (serpent god) trailing across his shoulder and down to his belly. His legs are wrapped in a tight sampot (a type of sarong) with creases in the front. Around his hips lies a tiger’s skin, recognizable from the tiger’s head below the clasp that holds the sampot in its place. The belt buckle is adorned with symmetrical flower and leaf designs.
When the statue was accessioned to the Museum of Cham Sculpture in 1918, only the lower left hand remained, holding a bowl into which the elephant’s trunk dips. Based on photos captured by Charles Carpeaux during the excavations and Parmentier’s drawings, the statue was standing on a yoni (currently exhibited in front of My Son E5 Tower). It originally had four arms. The upper right hand held an aksamala rosary, a symbol of austere cultivation, while the upper left hand carried a battle axe (parasu) representing the removal of all desires and delusions. Each of the two lower hands held different objects: in the left one was a bowl of sweets (modaka) – an offering favored by the deity and a reward for those who walk the spiritual path. In the right hand was a horseradish (mulakakanda), which farmers would offer to the god since Ganesha is also a deity who protects harvests. Some sculptures would depict Ganesha holding a horseradish to represent the relationship between the deity and agriculture.
The deity Ganesha first appeared in Indian sculptures circa the 5th century AD. Since then, stories of the god were often recounted in Purana literature. However, many researchers suggest Ganesha appeared earlier on Indo-Greek coins and in early sculpture works in the Mathura region. But why an elephant head? Some scholars suggest that when the Aryans migrated to India, the native tribes living in the forests had been worshipping elephant deities in a bid to prevent rampaging elephants from destroying their fields and threatening people’s lives. Early accounts also describe an angry elephant-headed deity, called Vighna-asura in Sanskrit, who caused trouble to other deities as well as human beings. Over time, the practice of worshipping elephant deities became a recurring theme in sculpture and mythology, with the deity Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Parvati, depicted with a human body and an elephant head. There are variations in explaining the origin, form, and symbolism of Ganesha. Under the influence of Indian culture, ancient Southeast Asian countries soon adopted the image of Ganesha in their sculptures, as seen in the works of pre-Angkor and Champa circa the 7th century AD.
By comparing details of clothing and engraving motifs on the My Son E1 pedestal and the Vishnu statue found at Da Nghi (Quang Tri province), the Champa standing Ganesha idol can be traced back to around the 7th-8th centuries. Two Ganesha statues holding a horseradish in their right hand dating back to the 6-7th century were found in Ravana Phadi Cave and Benisagar village (India). In Champa sculpture, two 7-8th century seated Ganesha statues found in Cam Le (Danang) and Truong Xa (Quang Tri) also hold horseradishes.
More than a century after the statue was excavated by Henri Parmentier in 1903, it still holds unique symbolic value. This image is solid evidence of the early introduction of Ganesha idols into Southeast Asia. The statue has been displayed in many international exhibitions, such as those in Paris in 2005–2006 and New York in 2014. Currently, a replica is on display at the Danang Museum of Cham Sculpture.