Ganeshas with skulls

Various East Javanese Ganeshas from more or less the same region and same period are similarly adorned with skull motifs and/or sit or stand on a row of skulls. Probably the earliest example is an image that is still in its original location at Bara (Blitar). Another came from Singosari but is now in the National Museum of Thailand in Bangkok. Yet another Ganesha sitting on skulls can be found in the National Museum of Indonesia in Jakarta. A fourth example is the Ganesha from Karangkates (Malang), while a fifth can be seen in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam (no 2960-252). A sixth example is the standing Ganesha from Mount Semeru in Leiden. However, it does not stand on skulls, but does wear jewellery with skull motifs and carries two skull cups.

Statue of Ganesha, BaraGanesha, Bangkok (photo Sandra Sardjono)Ganesha from Karangkates
From left to right: Ganesha of Bara, Ganesha from Bangkok (Photo Sandra Sardjono), Ganesha of Karangkates (OD 18079),From left to right: Ganesha of Bara, Ganesha from Bangkok (Photo Sandra Sardjono), Ganesha of Karangkates (OD 18079)

Ganesha, TropenmuseumGanesha of Sumeru (RMV)
From left to right: Ganesha (Tropenmuseum 2960-252), Ganesha of Sumeru (RMV)

There has been much discussion about the meaning of the skull imagery. P.H. Pott connected the skulls to Indian developments in Hinduism and Buddhism, collectively called Tantrism. In tantric literature the charnel ground (shmashana) comes to the fore as a location where special supernatural, magical powers can be obtained. It is the place of the dead who have not (yet) been cremated: a sinister, frightening place outside the inhabited world, where body parts lie around in different stages of decomposition along with skulls and bones. In the charnel ground, dogs, jackals, crows and vultures feast on the remaining scraps of flesh. Nowhere is the confrontation with the obstacles that prevent liberation from the cycle of rebirth starker than here, and nowhere else could they be better overcome. One Hindu god specifically related to the charnel ground is Bhairava, a fierce manifestation of Shiva.

Indeed, Bhairava became an important god during the Singhasari period, as is attested by his presence as a large separate statue and in miniature forms on the statues of Parvati (at Singosari) and Camundi (from Ardimulyo near Singosari). However, while the presence of Bhairava images is clearly linked to tantric practices, we do not necessarily have to conclude that the skulls on these Ganesha images had the same meaning. While the iconography of the Bhairava images corresponds to Indian descriptions of this tantric deity, we do not know of any Ganeshas with this kind of skull imagery from South Asia. Whenever Ganesha is depicted in an Indian tantric context, he is represented with a female partner. Furthermore, apart from the skulls, there is nothing demonic or fierce in the appearance of Ganesha.

Edi Sedyawati connected this form of Ganesha with a description in the Smaradahana that portrays Ganesha as a warrior who has severed the heads of his defeated enemies. Pauline Lunsingh Scheurleer suggested that the skull might have become an attribute to denote supernatural power. Skulls possessed a different significance in Indonesian cultures than in India: they were seen as a source of supernatural power that could confer protection and new life.

The skulls may indeed have been adopted from tantric iconography, but were applied here in order to express Ganesha’s protective powers in a way suitable to the Javanese context.