The forgotten tale of the elephant-headed god of the Sinhalese.

Meeting Ganapati at Mihintale

I walk through the ruins, as the path beckons me…

I was standing in front of the ruined stupa which is known as one of the earliest Buddhist monuments of Sri Lanka, situated in Mihintale. Only the ruined brick dome of the stupa is visible as the upper part has been collapsed, no one knowns when. At present this stupa is known as the Kantaka cetiya. The jungle tide has invaded almost half of this vast cave monastery, and thanks for the hard work of early archaeologists one can witness our glorious past at this premises. Everything is so calm and still, and if you listen carefully you can hear the trees whispering to each other. You can even listen to the stories these ruins have to say if you are a good observer. Every brick, every stone pillar, has a story to be revealed.    

During one of my visits to Mihintale in 2010, Kantaka cetiya caught my special attention for many reasons. One reason is the exquisite carvings, and all the unsolved mysteries surrounding this place. Out of all the wonderful carvings of mythological beings, one tiny figurine captured my attention and curiosity. It is the little elephant headed god, Gana deviyo or Pulleyar, sitting amidst a row of Vamanas, enjoying being the centre of attention. What is Gana deviyo doing here? Kanataka cetiya is known as one of the oldest Buddhist monument in Sri Lanka, dating back to the 1st century BC or even before.

Oldest known Buddhist arts in Sri Lanka

Archaeological excavations at Kantaka cetiya was started in 1935 by Prof. Senarat Paranavitana. Until then this stupa was not at all recognizable, as it was buried under debris of the collapsed monument. The brick dome is built on three stone terraces and its circumference is 425.5 feet and its stands at present in its ruined state about 40 ft. height.

An inscription reveals the original name

Prior to the archaeological work, the ruined stupa mound was known as Kiribandapavu dagaba, Kiribath vehera or the Giribanda seya by the locals. But a 1st century AD inscription found at this place revealed the original name as Kataka Ceta. The inscription records about a grant made to the stupa. Prof. Anuradha Seneviratna states that Kataka Ceta in the old Sinhala language means Kantaka cetiya. The inscription says that King Mahadatika Mahanaga provided two ways of income for the maintenance of this stupa. The information revealed through this inscription was further proved by a statement in the Mahavamsa which says that King Devanampiya Tissa made a beginning with the work of building sixty-eight rock shelters about the place where the Kantaka cetiya afterwards stood. Yet, historians are not sure about the first author of this stupa. Mahavamsa states that King Lanjathissa during the early 2nd century B.C. “had a mantling made of stone” for the stupa.  Prof. Paranavitana, in his writings states that the limestone facing of the basal terraces of the Kantaka cetiya dates from the reign of Lanjathissa who reigned about 119 to 109 B.C. He further states that the frontispiece probably dates from the first century, but the stelae appear to have been utilized in an earlier structure.

Therefore it is clear that the original stupa was built before the 1st century B.C., making this one of the earliest religious monuments in the island, says prof. Anuradha Seneviratna.

Oldest specimen of Sinhalese arts

The four frontispieces facing the four directions of the stupa was called as the wahalkada, but at present they are referred to as ayakas, academically. The lower part of these are built in limestone and the upper parts are in brick. What is special about these are the carvings. The entire structure is adorned with beautiful carvings of mythological characters and plants. Figures were carved out of stucco or terracotta and covered in white plaster. The whole structure were originally painted. The fragments of plaster and paint can still be seen.  These carvings reminds of the early Buddhist arts in India such as Sanchi and Bharhut. Yet, one must not rush into any conclusion such as these were influenced by Indian Buddhist arts, as it could happen otherwise too.

According to prof. Paranavitana, these carvings are the earliest specimens of Sinhalese plastic art that we now possess.

Ganapati, lord of the Ganas

What caught my special attention is the frieze of Ganas or the Vamanas, which means the dwarfs, on the cornice below the top most of the ayaka. Wamanas or dwarfs are also known as Ganas. In the centre of these Ganas, Gana-pathi or lord of the Ganas is seated. These Ganas are portrayed in various positions, holding various objects in their hands. The round shaped things can be assumed as the traditional local sweet, aggala and the others as sugar cane. The rest of the ganas are attendants of Ganapati.

His large belly and the elephant head is clearly visible thus making it strong enough to be identified as an early form of the Elephant-headed god.

Roots of the human-elephant conflict

It is a well-known fact that the earliest Sinhalese civilization sprang into life in the fertile northern plain of the island. One of the biggest challenges the farmers faced were the elephants who roamed in large numbers of herds in the dry zone forests. Therefore, it is natural that these farmers performed special poojas or rituals to protect their crops from these giant beasts.

Ancient inscriptions suggests that it was a great crime to kill an elephant and also the religious beliefs prohibited people from killing these beasts. Rather than killing or agitating the elephants, our ancestors found a sustaining solution for this challenge. What they did was building a bond with nature by surrendering themselves to it. Fear and submission gave birth to various folk beliefs and rituals. The Elephant-god was a result of this early human-elephant conflict.

Even today we can witness that in the north eastern provinces local farmers perform rituals for this god and request him to protect their farmlands. A sketchy figure of this god is drawn on a flat rock, using white paint and is kept on the paddy field, under a large tree. This drawing is not detailed. But his trunk, large ears and the large belly is visible. Few flowers and an oil lamp is offered to him. In these areas he is referred to as Pulleyar. Small shrines dedicated to Pulleyar is a common sight in the dry zone, especially on river bunts, under the shade of a large tree.

Pulleyar, god of the farmers

Pulleyar, which is derived from the Pali word pillaka means young elephant. Scholar Anita Raina Thapan notes that the root word pille in the name Pillaiyar might have originally meant “the young of the elephant”, because the Pali word pillaka means “a young elephant”.

Pulleyar is known to be a friendly, kind hearted god, and specially a friend of the children. He loves Mun-guli (a traditional local sweet made of mun bean flour) and sugar cane. Today, villagers in the Northern plain of the island, offers mun-guli and sugar cane to Pulleyar. Also mun-kiribath (Milk rice mixed with mun beans) is considered to be a favourite of Pulleyar. He is the first god to be venerated before any other god during religious ceremonies. Known to his child-like innocence, kindness and wisdom, he is also believed to be a remover of obstacles.

Unless provoked, an elephant is a gentle giant, and known to be an extremely intelligent beast. Also, they love sugar cane and people feed elephants with mun aggala or mun kiribath. Creating a friendly and playful innocent avatar for the elephant god is a way of trying to wipe out the fear and hatred out of people’s minds. Instead, he became a god that who would protect the crops.

Could this be the oldest Gana deviyo figure ever discovered?

The oldest Ganapati idol discovered in India belongs to the 5th or 6th century AD, but not prior to that. The figure at Kantaka Chethiya is identified as a figure of Ganapati by eminent scholars such as Prof. Paranavitana and Prof. Anuradha Seneviratna. It is easy to recognize Ganapati with his elephant head and large belly and his attendants offering him sugar cane and sweets. Therefor no doubt this tiny figure at Kantaka cetiya is Ganapati which belongs at least to the 1st century B.C. Well-known scholar Alice Getty states in 1936 that, it can be the oldest figure of this god ever discovered.

Furthermore considering the past and present of the human-elephant conflict among the local farmers in the northern plain and present day folk religious practices in that area, it is fair enough to conclude that Ganapati or Pulleyar was an age old practice of the ancient Sinhalese farmers.

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery.  There is always more mystery.” Anais Nin

Uncategorized, Ganapati, Ganesh, gods of Sri Lanka, Kantaka stupa, Mihintale, Pulleyar