Here are a couple of excerpts from a daily diary I kept while we were in Thailand:
“Ellen, I, Steve and Ron crammed ourselves into a taxi and set off for this mysterious weekend market. It’s down by the river, on the edge of Chinatown, a fairly long drive. We got out at the main pier of Bangkok, which we barely glimpsed before Steve set off along the sidewalk. The sidewalk was, as usual, lined with vendors, only these were selling watches, polished stones, herbal stuff, and, more and more often, tiny statues and amulets that offered good luck of various sorts: strength, valor, intelligence, money, etc. . . .
“Further along were statues of various gods and the Buddha. And full or partial dental plates. (Don’t ask, I have no idea!) . . . The only item I saw that I really liked was Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, as a crawling baby. It was about three inches long and adorable. But the man wanted 300 baht and wouldn’t bargain, and Steve said I could get one cheaper in the real market, just ahead. So I let it go.
“Okay the market. It isn’t anything like what I was expecting. It’s indoors, for one thing, in a big, single-story warehouse kind of building, very ramshackle. . . . [I]t’s very dirty in there, the floor is wet, made of cracked and patched and cracked again concrete. . . . The aisles are endless, extremely narrow, and both sides are rows of little booths, mostly featuring more very small rectangular amulets in open heaps. No air conditioning. . . . I finally found a table with bronze and brass statues and there again was Ganesha, this time as an adult and having grown a second set of arms. Each hand is holding a symbol of the gifts he brings to mankind. . . . This statue is about six or seven inches high. Again I was encouraged to walk on, but doggone it, I wanted the thing, so I went back and bought it.”
There are all sorts and kinds of gods and goddesses depicted in Thailand, though the country is overwhelmingly Buddhist. I think it’s because they are very superstitious and are always looking for something that will improve their luck. Visitors to the place often catch on to this and buy their own amulets or statues — I know Ron, who travels often to Thailand, is superstitious and owns many amulets. I wasn’t there long enough for that, but still, there was something about Ganesha that I found appealing. I kept that statue of him beside my computer the rest of my stay in Bangkok, and he stands on my desk this minute. But it wasn’t until I had been back home for awhile that I learned more about him.
He is always portrayed with one broken tusk. I thought that meant he was a warrior of some sort — though he is described as a “creator,” too. A Buddhist temple near our hotel had a number of minor altars, each dedicated to some other god or goddess. There were two for Kwan Yin, and there was one with three gods, Shiva, Brahma, and Ganesha. I was told by a food vendor, the only person there who spoke any English at all, that Ganesha was the creator, Brahma was the sustainer, and Shiva was the destroyer — “like Christian Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” he told me. That didn’t sound as if Ganesha broke his tusk in a battle. When I got home a friend said it was very appropriate that I liked Ganesha and kept him on my desk, because one of the stories about him is that he was listening to a wonderful long poem (the Mahabaratha) being recited and became so excited about it that he wanted to write it down. He found some paper, but not a pen. So he broke off the end of his tusk and used it to write down the words. That means Ganesha has a special fondness for writers — or maybe it’s writers who have a special fondness for him. (I have since found this is only one of several stories about Ganesha’s broken tusk — but all of them have him at least eventually using the tusk to write down a long poem.) Ganesha is described as genial and kind, and often depicted with a mouse — sometimes as riding on the creature! (That he chooses this lowly creature as his vehicle is emblematic of his humility, though there are other interpretations put on it.) I am going to try to find a teeny wee mouse to put at the feet of my statue, which doesn’t have one.
Ganesha is always depicted as having a big belly, and often with a snake for a belt — though mine doesn’t have the snake. The four objects in his hands are: Upper right hand holds an elephant goad which he uses to propel mankind forward; lower right hand holds the end of his broken tusk, symbolizing sacrifice and love of learning; upper left hand holds a small noose, which he uses to capture and remove problems that hold mankind back; lower left hand, is a “laddoo” or sweet, to show how sweet study of religion can be. The objects in his hands differ in different depictions; one web site says there are 57 different emblems Ganesha can be depicted holding!
Ganesha is in charge of all living things, and only he can bring success to any enterprise. No Hindu would dream of beginning a ceremony or project without first invoking Ganesha.