Tucked away in one of the shrines of the Thanumalayan temple in Kanyakumari district is the stone sculpture of a little-known goddess. Seated cross-legged in Sukhasana, the slender, four-armed goddess has a battle-axe in her upper-left hand and a conch in the lower left hand. In her two right hands, she carries a vase and a staff, around which she entwines her long trunk. This is the female elephant-headed goddess, Vinayaki or Ganeshini, whose origins have been ignored by most writings on Hindu mythology.

This depiction of the elephant-headed goddess in the 1,300-year-old temple is among the few rare representations of the deity. “It is one among many other idols but is special,” said C Santhalingam, a retired archaeologist. “When you go around the temple for pradarshana, you can see the goddess in the north eastern side of the temple. It is an idol of interest, since a similar sculpture is rare to find.”

Goddess in obscurity

Every year, Hindus across the country celebrate the birth of their beloved elephant-headed god Ganesh in the Bhadrapada month of the Hindu calendar, which usually begins at the end of August. Revered as the remover of all obstacles, countless songs, stories and imagery celebrate him as one of the most popular deities in Hindu mythology. But the same level of adulation has never been given to Vinayaki, who was often regarded as Ganesh’s consort.

“From the beginning, the goddess’ entry in myths is so overshadowed by the popularity of her consort Ganesh that she is frequently ignored or known by various Puranic names,” wrote Balaji Mundkur in his research paper on the goddess, titled The Enigma of Vainayaki. “In contrast to the immense popularity of the images of Ganesh, she is not often represented by an icon, not even in human form. She is at no historical period given as much personal adoration as is accorded to Devi as Shiva’s shakti.”

According to Mundkur, Vainayaki is one of the least encountered deities in religious literature. She is not even known by a consistent name – her names are all feminine versions of the elephant god – Gajanani, Vighneshi, Gajarupa. “Though the origins of this goddess are mysterious, there is little doubt that her lineage parallels that of the many theriomorphic divinities and godlings of Hinduism whose roots go back to pre- vedic times,” he wrote.

Mundkur also wrote that the earliest mention of Vinayaki occurred in the Matsya Purana compiled in 550 AD, where she is listed among 200 other goddesses as Shiva’s various forms.

The earliest representation of the elephant goddess was found in Rairh in Rajasthan, a damaged teracotta sculpture, dated to have been made earlier than the 5th century. The rest of the representations appeared only after the 10 century BCE.

Another representation of the goddess is found in the tantric temple Chausath Yogini in Hirapur, Odisha. Here, she is one of the 64 Yoginis, a sacred feminine force. According to Prithvi K Agrawala in the book Goddess Vinayaki: The Female Ganesa, the figure of the goddess stands in a rare dance pose. “She is dancing in the catura pose with her legs bending inside in dance movements on the toes,” he wrote.

Though the figure has eroded over time, such that the emblems in her hands are no longer visible, the graceful posture of the pot-bellied goddess standing on a boar is discernible. Some other rare sculptures of Vinayaki have been found in temples in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

But the most commonly acknowledged version of Vinayaki’s significance, was the she was the female form, or shakti, of Ganesha.

Goddess lore in Hinduism

According to Devdutt Pattnaik’s narration, a demon named Andhaka wanted Parvati to be his wife. Shiva attempted to kill him, but the only way he could die was if not a drop of blood fell to the ground. Parvathi then called for help from the shaktis of every divine being, including Vaishavi, who was Vishnu’s shakti, Indrani who is Indra’s shakti and Brahmini, who is Brahma’s shakti. Here, Ganesh’s shakti also emerged to drink the blood of Andhaka before it touched the ground.

In other interpretations, the images are said to represent Malini, who was Parvati’s elephant-headed companion and Ganesh’s nursemaid.

The fourth day after every new moon is celebrated as Vinayaki chaturthi, a day significant for Lord Ganesha but named after his female form.

With so little literature on this female deity, it is unsurprising that many have not heard of the female representation of Ganesh. When Janaki Srinivasan posted about the female avatar of Ganesha on Facebook last week along with photos of the goddess, she received several astonished reactions. Her post was shared over 500 times. “In these times when a single form of tradition is forced down our throats, let us remind ourselves of the wonderfully diverse cultures that form our inheritance,” wrote Srinivasan.

Vyaghrapada Ganeshan, of Meenakshiamman temple of Madurai, has tiger feet. Credit: Madhu Shetty via Facebook