© 2023 Dr Margaret Sheppard

Deities Hierarchy Ceremonies Sakra Guardians Twelve Deities


Ganesh  has an elephant-shaped head. Although a Hindu Deity he is also very popular among Buddhists under the name of Ganapati or Gana-deviyo. He is regarded as the chief of obstacles as it is believed that he is responsible for creating and removing obstacles which he does through his attendant demons and lesser Deities. This attribute gives him his Buddhist name Ganapati, meaning Lord of Hosts. The Shrines and Temples dedicated to him are commonly run by Hindus. The Buddhists revere him either through his statues, found in many Buddhist temples, or by visiting the Hindu Temples dedicated to him. As the Deity of wisdom and of learning, he is propitiated when a child first reads the alphabet. As the Deity of Obstacles (their creator and remover), the Hindus begin rituals and ceremonies by making the first offering to him.

In  especially the North and Central Province (Hill Country) of Sri Lanka, shrines to Ganesh are situated along the main roads. These typically have a statue of Ganesh near a tree and travellers will make offerings to him of a small coin or by breaking a coconut to ensure a safe journey. According to legend, Ganesh was commanded by his father Shiva (Isvara) to stand by roadsides thus becoming the Guardian of travellers.

Ganesh is believed to be the brother of the Deity, Kataragama and son of Shiva (Isvara) and his wife, Parvati. There are interesting legends about his origin and how he acquired his elephant head. See for example:  WWW Virtual Library - Sri Lanka. One legend relates that Ganesh was created by Parvati to guard the house whilst she went to take a bath. Her husband Shiva (Isvara) was away fighting on behalf of the Deities. She instructed her son not to allow anyone to enter whilst she was bathing. In the meantime Isvara returned triumphant from battling evils. Ganesh  did not know his father as he had never met him and followed his mother’s instructions refusing entry to Isvara. The enraged Isvara then cut off his head.

When Parvati returned from her bath and found what had happened she was distraught. Isvara wished to make amends and sent his soldiers out to bring a new head from the first creature they found sleeping with its head pointing towards the North - this was an elephant. When the soldiers returned with the elephant’s head, Isvara then placed it on the body of his son - hence Ganesh with the head of an elephant. He also gave his son a boon that every celebration should commence with offerings being made to Ganesh.

The Ganesh Temple at  Sella Kataragama - The Guardian is blessing the pilgrims

Pujah at the Ganesh Temple at Kataragama

Ganesh’s temple is situated immediately next to that of his brother’s  - Kataragama’s.

Pilgrims inside observing the Guardian offering pujah whilst others wait outside for the Guardian to  come back with the Pujah.

First he brings the incense  in which pilgrims bathe their hands. Then he returns to the Shrine. N.B. His covered mouth and nose to prevent his breath polluting the pujah offerings.

When he returns he marks their foreheads with the white and red mark.

Marking the pilgrims with a blessing.

An assistant Guardian then distributes the pujah food

A traveller making an offering at a roadside shrine to Ganesh to ensure a safe journey. It is common for both Hindu and Buddhist travellers to do this to ensure a safe journey.

Depiction of Ganesh in Temple decoration on Jaffna Peninsula

Beachside Ganesh Temple along North East Coast

Roadside Shrines dedicated to Ganesh

Ganesh Shrine within Buddhist Temple

Depictions of Ganesh in Sri Lankan Temples and Shrines

Ganesh’s Family

(Image from internet)