I have just returned from three weeks in India, exploring and photographing the country’s two holiest cities — Varanasi and Vrindavan. While shrines to the pantheon of Hindu deities are abundant throughout the subcontinent, they are seemingly attached to every building in these two cities. None is more evident than the elephant god, Ganesha. Equipped with the head of an elephant and body of a pot-bellied, older man, Ganesha is the Lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. He is also worshipped as the god of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth. With such an arsenal of favors to bestow, Ganesha is perhaps the most popular of the Indian gods. He is invoked at the beginning and end of most celebrations and called upon throughout the day to help his believers realize success and help good triumph over evil.
The stories of how Ganesha came to have the head of an elephant vary, as is to be expected with anything in India and the fact that he has been around for at least 7,000 years. The most common explanation is as follows. Ganesha is the first born child of Shiva and Parvati (Shiva being one of the top three India deities). While Lord Shiva is away from home, Parvati asks little Ganesha to protect her by denying anyone entrance to her bath or bedroom. Shiva comes home unexpectedly, entering either the bath or bedroom. When Ganesha tries to prohibit him from entering, Shiva in a rage cuts off his head, not recognizing Ganesha as his son. Parvati is devastated. Shiva sends his people out with instructions to bring back the head of the first sleeping being they come upon. That being is a young elephant. Ganesha is thus given the head and his father decrees that henceforth people will worship Ganesha and invoke his name before undertaking any venture.
This story may seem Disneyesque to Westerners, but it is very real to the hundreds of millions of Hindus who adorn their front doors with paintings or sculptures of Ganesha. I keep several Ganeshas around my home — just in case. Having been immersed in Hindu celebrations and wisdom this past month, it seemed reasonable therefore to make several offerings of my own to Ganesha on behalf of all elephants. The obstacles to eliminating trade in illegal ivory and poaching are staggering. The resolve shown recently is encouraging (visit In the News for highlights); however, the road ahead is littered with obstructions, including organized crime, corruption, lack of education, poverty, limited resources and human-wildlife conflict.
That is why attacking the matter of demand remains so critical. Yet, even bold moves to do so encounter obstacles. For example, recently announced regulations to be issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ban Americans from importing and exporting (almost) any item that contains even an iota of ivory. The rules do not ban private ownership, but outlaw interstate sales of most ivory items. Yet, this week’s New York Times carries an article, “Limits on Ivory Sales, Meant to Protect Elephants, Set Off Wide Concerns.” It seems that snuff bottles, violins and chess sets with ivory may lose their value without an open interstate or international market. So on one hand you have The Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) calling for the destruction or removal of all ivory in the royal collection at Buckingham Palace to raise awareness. . .and on the other, collectors of ivory, musicians, museums and the National Rifle Association crying foul — don’t mess with my ivory. (Why the NRA you may ask? Many old guns have decorative, inlaid ivory on the stock.)
Obstacles everywhere. I feel a need to commune with Ganesha over this (again). He seems so appropriate a god for endangered elephants.