Indonesia’s historical ties with India, in particular the island of Java, find mention in the Ramayana. In Java, where Hinduism struck strong roots, Ganesha was represented in a huge variety of forms, an indication of His popularity. A seated, four-armed Ganesha holding a broken tusk, garland and bowl of sweets, thought to be from the 8th century was found in Chandi Banon temple, central Java. Other ancient statues bear similarity to the iconography of the Ellora caves in India.
The Tantric Ganesha found in other Southeast Asian countries has echoes in Java as well. A 13th century Ganesha statue from Bara in east Java represents him as both Creator and Destroyer of Obstacles. Over the years, excavations have thrown up several Ganesha images all over the island.
On Borneo Island, 5th century inscriptions suggest that this was the easternmost limit reached by Ganesha. The 8th century cave Genung Kombeng has Buddhist and Hindu stone carvings of a four-armed Ganesha along with Shiva and Durga.
In Bali, Islamic Indonesia’s Hindu enclave, every village has a minimum of three temples and Ganesha is a familiar entity. He presides over knowledge, along with Goddess Saraswati. More prominently, he is a guardian deity of temples – Dvarapala – and is therefore, stationed at their gates. Since his task is to obstruct demons, the Balinese Ganesha is typically stern-faced.
Among the best known Balinese Ganesha temples is the 11th century cave of Goa Gajah – literally Cave of the Elephant – with representations of the Hindu trinity and Ganesha.
Skilled Balinese artisans produce Ganesha icons in varied materials and forms. Stone idols from Batubalan are usually in the classical style. In the Ubud region, elaborately carved Ganeshas are made from a soft, white wood (known locally as “crocodile wood”); a simple, rounded Ganesha is carved from suar, a mahogany-like wood. Artisans paint Ganesha on finely carved cattle bone, imported mammoths’ tusks and egg shells. Bronze statues with a patina of green are sold in Java. Balinese shadow theatre, portraying themes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, features a Ganesha puppet character made of buffalo skin.