Ganesha’s Chinese avataar
September 19, 2012

On the occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi today, the birthday of Lord Ganesha, we trace his humble meanderings across China and Japan as the friendly God of bliss who brought love and prosperity to many more than just the Indian sub continent.

Lord Ganesha might have had a tiny mouse to travel on, but he did get further than many get on a 747 today. History, drawings and artifacts in museums prove that Ganesh, was highly influential in many parts of South East Asia. While he might have assumed various avataars depending on the features in vogue to where he travelled, the elephant-headed friendly God of Indian origin played a significant role in China and more importantly in Japan.

Studies reveal the Hindu Ganesha icon travelled to China, where it was incorporated in Buddhism, and then journeyed further to Japan. According to an account by Niranjan Shah, Ganesha appears in China and Japan in forms that show distinct regional character. In northern China, the earliest known stone statue of Ganesha carries an inscription dated to 531. In Japan, the Ganesh cult was first mentioned in 806. In China, an image of Ganesh may be seen in the rock-cut temple at Tun-huang and another in a similar rock cut temple in Kung-hsien. Around the Ganesh are depicted other Vedic deities too such as the Sun, the Moon, Cupid and the nine planetary divinities.

According to historians, the Japanese and Chinese know Lord Ganesh as Shoten alias Kanjiten in modern parlance. While the names bear no resemblance to Ganesha, the God is assumed to be the same, since it looks very similar to its Indian counterpart. A major difference in the Chinese-Japanese avataar of Ganesh is that the East Asian deity is often represented as an elephant-headed male and female pair, standing embracing each other in sexual union. The genders of the pair is not explicit, but hinted in the iconography. The female wears a crown, a patched monk’s robe and a red surplice, while the male wears a black cloth over his shoulder. He has a long trunk and tusks, while she has short ones. He is reddish-brown in colour and she is white.

To read more about Ganesh’s travels and influence in East Asia click here.

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