Toronto, Canada. 2013. Standing next to a large bronze, meditating statue of Shiva, the Destroyer, Maharani Emporium owner Rupert Lalla, tugs at a gold chain around his neck. He pulls the attached gold figure up from beneath his green plaid shirt. Bringing it forward so I can see it more closely, he reveals a tiny figure with an elephant head, human body and four arms in various positions — Ganesha.
I take this as a good sign since I’ve been grilling Rupert in his Toronto shop about this Hindu god and why Indians choose him for their cars as the preferred dashboard deity.
A bit about Ganesha
Totally fitting as a dashboard deity, Ganesha is the Hindu god of protection, wisdom and remover of obstacles. He also is the son of the god of destruction and recreation, Shiva, and the Hindu goddess of power, Parvati. Often called the easiest god to worship, Ganesha, according to Hindu belief, accepts any devotee’s prayers — whether formal or informal. Embracing Ganesha as their god of choice, residents of Mumbai hold Ganesh Chaturthi, an eleven-day festival solely devoted to the elephant-headed god.
In 2010, during a trip to Bali, I noticed that Ganesha was everywhere on the “Island of the Gods,” since the Balinese place him near entrances of buildings and temples. Stationed in the parking lot of an elephant preserve in the jungle, appropriately, was a large moss speckled volcanic Ganesha sculpture complete with a jewel-encrusted headdress. The contrast of the dark rock and the electric green moss on the statue all against the backdrop of the dense, vibrant jungle captivated me.
Then inside the preserve, with only a waist high wooden gate separating us from the elephants, my husband Kurt, kids Eddie and Kasey and I fed the elephants bamboo. The way the “fingers” of one particular elephant’s trunk gingerly curled around the bamboo stalk and then stuffed it in his flapping triangular mouth was entertaining and endearing. I moved my palm down his bristly, grooved and flexible trunk. For some reason, I felt a connection to this elephant and the Indian god of its likeness.
An Affinity for Everything Elephant Headed.
Perhaps that’s why back in the United States, I purchased a Ganesha pendant for good luck. About to quit my job, I decided it couldn’t hurt to have a god that facilitates new beginnings hanging close to my heart.
On another occasion, I bought a small Ganesha desk statue at a New Age store. While ringing up the statue, the shopkeeper told me it’s common in India for drivers to have Ganesha sitting on dashboards as they dodge cars, cows, tuk tuks, motor scooters and oxen carts on the road.
Really? This cultural phenomenon, I decided, needed investigation since it could turn into an interesting feature story. Traveling to India was not an option, so I would visit Indian markets in the States instead.
I tried to envision this scene. Would Dashboard Ganesha’s elephant head bobble? Would he shake it like a hula dancer? What would a Ganesha dashboard figure look like?
Vegas. At least that’s what thought of the first dashboard ornament I saw in the India Spice House, a suburban Indian market located in Eden Prairie, Minnesota — in the same complex as an Applebee’s.
Lady Gaga was blaring from a stereo as I approached the counter where two young clerks stood: Niruj, had spiky hair and a green shirt that read, “Life Won’t Wait Forever” and Krishna, who was taller wore a red and white checked shirt.
“Excuse me,” I said, unsure how to proceed.
“Yes,” They both answered in unison.
“I heard that many people in India put Ganesha on the dashboards of their cars…” I paused and they waited for me to finish.
“Is this true?”
“Yes,” said Niruj, who stood up straighter and replied with such certainty it took me aback.
“I have one in my car,” he added while Krishna nodded.
“You do? Awesome!” I couldn’t believe it was this easy.
Then, Niruj slowly extended his forearm, pushed his sleeve up and showed me his silver bracelet that featured a tiny reddish orange Ganesha charm.
“Can I take a picture of this?” I asked while I whipped out my iPhone.
Shrugging his shoulders, Niruj moved his arm closer, so I could get a good shot.
“So, do you sell dashboard Ganeshas here?”
He beckoned for me to come over to a shelving unit that had random stacked items. Grabbing a Tupperware bin, Niruj rummaged around. He pulled out a 2.5 inch gold Ganesha sitting in the customary crossed leg pose. The elephant-headed god was wearing what looked like spray painted red zumbas from the 1980s.
Niruj handed me another Ganesha. This one had iridescent features that appeared to be melted together. Only a raised formation of a trunk, crossed legs and pot belly somewhat defined and gave Ganesha away. Groovy Acid Trip Ganesha, for sure.
“I’ll take both,” I told Niruj. “But how do I put these on the dashboard?”
He got out a piece of double-sided sticky tape and put it on the bottom. I guess that was it. These seemed to be somewhat dubious Ganesha dashboard figures. However, I had no reason to doubt Niruj and Krishna.
Fortunately, one week later, I was going to Toronto for a conference, and after doing some research, I knew that I was heading to a city that had the largest South Asian marketplace in North America — Gerard India Bazaar. Short of flying to Mumbai, this seemed like the best place to find Ganesha knick-knacks and gadgets.
The Search is On
After getting off at the Greenwood subway station, I head toward Gerrard Street. For 20 minutes, I traipse past mostly working class row houses and the occasional bus stop.
A mural with a peacock, a temple and what looks like bright orange Arabic script on a brick wall tells me I am close. A Pakistani flag waves from a restaurant I pass by. A gyro stand and lamb meat swiveling on a spinning grill catch my nose’s attention. Then an Islamic religious store seems to mark the end of the Pakistani portion of Gerrard.
After crossing the street, I spot women in saris walking with shopping bags. Outside a gift store, a dad and his son dance and sing along to a Bollywood song blaring from outside speakers. Scanning the block, I see restaurants, silk shops, and wedding shops. Farther down the street, I notice a woman in a black abaya window shopping.
Stopping in front of the Maharani Emporium, which advertises books, handicrafts, musical instruments, religious items, CDs, incense and Bollywood DVDs, I open the door.
Jasmine incense replaces the lingering smell of fatty, sizzling lamb and fresh pita from the gyro place. Gold and bronze burst in the ultra bright fluorescent lighting as I scan the room to see rows of statues and masks of various Hindu gods lining the aisles, shelves and hanging from the walls.
I am way out of my league. In fact, I think of this guy in Berkeley, CA. He plastered “Free Tibet “and Dali Lama stickers all over his car yet thought that Tibet was the capital of Nepal. There’s definitely not going to be a hulaing, bobble head, Ganesha dashboard dude here. In fact, I probably should not refer to Ganesha as a “dude.”
“Excuse me,” I ask the proprietor, Rupert Lalla, who is an older Indian gentleman with a white goatee along with white tufts on the sides of his head. “I’m curious to know,” I continue. “Do Indians use Ganesha as a dashboard ornament?”
“Oh, yes,” he says, looking at me through the wide, stylish frames of his eyeglasses. “We have many Ganesha dashboard figures,” Rupert adds, gesturing for me to follow him. He shows me a shelf with a line up of several glitzy gold, red and sparkly Vegas Ganeshas and some more subdued Ganeshas made out of sandstone, wood, and metal.
“We also have Ganesha key chains, magnets and jewelry.”
“Why Ganesha for the car?” I ask.
“For protection,” he says picking and moving a white waxy Ganesha with gold trim and red markings on his elephant forehead.
“For any marriage, the first day we pray [to] Ganesha.” Rupert maintains, opening up to me slightly.
“What about Shiva?” I ask. “Do people really want the god of destruction watching over them while they’re driving?”
“Yes, of course,” he says, seeming surprised that I would ask. “You can have whatever god you want. But Ganesha is the most popular.” Rupert looks over at the door after tiny bells jingle, sounding like a dancer shaking an ankle bracelet.
“We have many books on the gods,” he suggests, pointing me toward the book aisle and then turning to greet the new customers.
“You wait. In three or four days, there will be a change”
Immediately, I gravitate toward the children’s books. One comic book depicts Ganesha as a badass boy superhero. While paging through some of the more serious books, I see nothing but solid blocks of text with few paragraph breaks. The comic book it is.
With my intended purchase, I go back to the aisle with the Ganesha dashboard deities.
“I have a Ganesha pendant,” I admit to Rupert as he returns. I kneel down to retrieve it from my purse. Getting up, I show him the silver square with a painted image of Ganesha sitting on a throne emitting a yellow glow.
“Is it okay to wear him if you’re not Hindu?” I ask. “Or is it offensive to have a Hindu deity?” It’s somewhat late if it’s an offensive act, since I’ve just shown Rupert my pendant.
“No, no,” He declares. “You should put it on.” His tone says, “What are you waiting for?” This is when he pulls his own Ganesha pendant out from beneath his shirt.
“You wait. In three or four days, there will be a change,” he says after I get a good look at his necklace.
Actually, it hits me that one week ago I was pulled over by a police officer for speeding in a rural Colorado mountain town. Apologizing profusely to the officer, I was aware that I was wearing my Ganesha pendant. At the time, I thought that the cop could be a far right-wing, Christian who might peg me as a heathen idolator and give me a ticket.
He let me go with a warning.
I tell Rupert this story.
“See?” he says, nodding.