In our small city of Tainan, Taiwan, I have been really fortunate in finding a great group of expats. Whether starting a family, working on a project, or simply exploring, we have all settled here for the foreseeable future, and while we love our host city, it is also nice to be reminded of home, or even to explore each other’s cultures from our base in Tainan.
This past week, one of the families hosted a celebration for Ganesha Chaturthi, at which six countries were represented. The hosts, a mixed couple from India (dad) and the US (mom) invited us to share in the annual celebration, which was absolutely beautiful. It was especially touching watching their 2-year-old son take part in the celebration, with his dad proudly showing him how to prepare the flowers for Ganesha and wave the incense together as a family around his statue. Said son was wide-eyed in fascination throughout.
Ganesha Chaturthi is held every year, and lasts about 10 days. The festival is held in honor of the elephant-headed god, welcoming him on his annual visit. Families get together to celebrate his arrival, and offer food, flowers and gifts to his statue in one’s home or in a public place. Our host told us that back in India, towns and individual homes have an unspoken competition as to who can have the most beautifully decorated shrine. At public shrines, donations are also given, which ultimately get dispersed back to the needy.
It is the absolute favorite festival of our host. He loves it because of the purity of it all. Though there is no gift giving, like with Diwali or even Christmas, he enjoys the day simply because family gets together to have a feast, be happy, and celebrate what Ganesha symbolizes: the removal of all obstacles in life to happiness.
At one point, I wanted to bring up the, uh…, elephant in the room. Why, exactly, does Ganesha have the head of an elephant?
As the legend goes, one day Ganesha’s mom was getting ready to take a shower, so she told Ganesha to guard the door and not let anyone inside. A bit later, Ganesha’s dad Shiva came home, who had been gone for a long time. Upon meeting, they did not recognize each other, and Ganesha refused to let him inside. They subsequently fought, and Ganesha lost the battle, as well as his head. When his mother saw the result, she told Shiva that he had actually beheaded his own son, who in turn promised to fix the problem. He instructed others to go out and bring back the head of the first living creature they saw. That of course was an elephant, and that elephant’s head was used in place of Ganesha’s original head when brought back to life.
Why didn’t Shiva recognize his own son?
Well, Ganesha wasn’t born the traditional way. He was created from the dirt off of his mother’s body. Shiva had never met him before.
I started asking a lot more questions too, but was warned off by his wife as each needed about a 30 minute story to answer. I did ask, though, whether most people believe in Ganesha as an actual god, or whether he is more symbolic. My host told me that in his family, it is about 50/50, and all are accepting of each other’s views. To him, Ganesha is the “coolest god ever created by man,” and he loves not only that he has an elephant’s head, but also that he is kind of fat and is always smiling. Plus, his chariot is pulled around by rats. And that is pretty awesome for a god.
This made the whole celebration even more special. Our host does not believe Ganesha is actually a god or that he was really visiting his home during this celebration, but still looks forward to this day every year. His celebration of Ganesha is purely a celebration of families coming together and the removal of obstacles to happiness for the people he loves and for all people.
Ganesha, the coolest god ever, brings about a purity of sentiment that makes the celebration profound.