Vatapi Ganapati, an art historical revisit

Vatapi Ganapatim Bhaje is a Sanskrit kriti composed by the legendary poet-composer and singer Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar. It is sung in almost all music concerts in South India.

Published: 22nd August 2020 04:02 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd August 2020 01:47 PM   |  A+A-

The around 1,460-year-old Ganesha sculpture in Cave No. 1 in the Chalukyan capital Vatapi (now Badami)

Vatapi Ganapatim Bhaje is a Sanskrit kriti composed by the legendary poet-composer and singer Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar. It is sung in almost all music concerts in South India. The kriti’s opening line refers to the Ganapati of Vatapi and the entire composition praises him. Vatapi was the capital of the Chalukyas and is the modern-day Badami in Karnataka’s Bagalkot district.

The composition has a historical and political association with the Badami Chalukyas. It is believed that after the war between Pulakeshin II’s Chalukyas and Narasimhavarman’s Pallavas in 642 CE, the image of Ganesha from Badami was taken as war booty by Paranjothi, the commander of the Pallava army. There is an image of Vatapi Ganapati worshipped in a Siva shrine at Tiruchenkattankudi, believed to be Paranjothi’s village, in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvarur district. While inscriptions of both the dynasties are silent about it, local beliefs and oral traditions have been preserved till date to narrate the story of the image from Vatapi.

Ganesha-Ganapati has been a very important deity in the Indian belief system. Ancient epics and Puranas have detailed descriptions of the remover of obstacles. The Rig Veda has a hymn (Rik, 2:23:1) dedicated to Ganapati. The Shukla Yajurveda, Taittiriya Samhita, Maitryaniya Samhita, Maitreyaniya Aranyaka and Amara Kosha describe his various aspects. The Vishnudharmottara Purana (Ch.78, Hymn, 1-18) gives an illustrated description: He should have an elephant face, short figure with a hefty body and a large tummy. He should also have four arms with attributes like the pasha (noose), ankusha (mahout’s stick to control an elephant) and modaka patra (bowl for sweetmeat), and should be in a seated posture. The epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Puranas—Ganesha, Mudgala, Brahma and Brahmanda—of later days also have elaborate narratives about him. In architecture and sculptures, in Siva Panchayatana, Ganesha was established as an independent deity of the Ganapatya cult.

Ancient Indian artists had a great fascination for the image of Ganesha and impressively depicted his varied forms from a very early period. The earliest image of Ganesha in Karnataka is in Gokarna on the west coast. The Gokarna Mahatme speaks about the Atma Linga and the related story of Ganesha and Ravana. The Ganesha temple is situated next to the Gokarneshwara/Mahabaleshwara temple.

One of the earliest sculptures of
Ganapati (early 4th century CE,
Banavasi Kadamba period), in a temple
in Karnataka’s Gokarna.

The Gokarana Ganesha has interesting features. He is in a standing posture with only two arms. The pot-bellied, hefty looking image has beautifully carved physical details. Ganesha holds a modaka patra in his left hand and a radish in the right. He has ghanta yajnopavita and a semi-circular kati vastra that has side knots and is tasselled on both sides. The Gokarna image has been considered as one of the earliest Ganesha sculptures based on the archaic features dating to the Banavasi Kadamba dynasty period, early 4th century CE. The Badami Chalukyas inherited the artistic and religious nuances of the Kadambas and continued to patronise mega projects like rock-cut temples and structural temples in and around Badami.

The approximately 1,460-year-old Ganesha sculpture at Cave No. 1 in the Chalukyan capital Vatapi. (now Badami)

Ganesha has been depicted a good number of times during the Badami Chalukya period. While the Chalukya artists continued to represent the images of Ganesha with two arms, they also depicted him with four arms. Cave No. 1 in Badami (circa 560 CE) has an image of a seated Ganesha in a side shrine on the western extended wall, which is next to the unique Nataraja sculpture. The image is seated in a relaxed posture with an artistically carved elephant face. The sculpture has large ears and a fully blown lotus crown on the head. He holds the modaka patra in his left hand. In the right hand he is holding either a radish or broken teeth.

A necklace, beaded yajnopavita, armlets and thick waist band decorate his person. The lotus crown on the head is symbolically associated with perpetual knowledge—Samyak Jnana—as Ganesha is venerated as the deity with ultimate intellect and knowledge. Badami has a temple known as Lower Sivalaya on the northern hill. It was dedicated to the Ganapatya cult. The temple has lost the outer structure; only the garbhagriha and vimana are intact. The peetha in the garbhagriha has an oval shape that confirms its identity as a Ganapatya temple. Presently the peetha is empty. The image of the Vatapi Ganapati in Tamil Nadu doesn’t fit in the peetha as the former is smaller in size. Moreover, there is a stark difference in the features of the Chalukya Ganapatis and those in TN.

The idol in the Tiruvarur temple appears to be a 9th century image with early Chola features and is similar to the Ganeshas in Talakadu and Bengaluru’s Begur. Further, in warfare in the Pallava-Chalukya times, there was no practice of taking images of Gods as war booty. So the legend of the Vatapi Ganapati is possibly restricted to the myths and the kriti. Historical and artistic evidence and stylistic features attest to this.

Ganapatya temple on the northern hill in Badami. 

An image of Ganesha whose size is similar to the one that should have been in the Badami Lower Sivalaya temple, and partly fractured, is placed at the entrance of the Mahakuteshwara temple in Mahakuta. The Badami Chalukya temples at Aihole and Pattadakal have dedicated sumptuous space for the delineation of Ganapati. There are a variety of Ganesha images found in the Chalukya period. After the Chalukyas, their successors, the Rashtrakutas, dedicated a large niche in Ellora Cave 16 for him. In the Kalyan Chalukya period and even later, the image of Ganesha became important in temples. Large monolithic images of Ganesha at Sudi, Hampi, Kurudumale and even in Bengaluru’s Basavanagudi (Bull Temple Road) attest to the magnificent development of the Ganesha imagery. 

R H kulkarni
Professor, Dept of Art History, College of Fine Arts, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath


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