I came to Mumbai about 20 years ago, and shortly after settling down here, I unexpectedly found a new best friend, Lord Ganesha, who also happens to be the favourite personal God of most people I know. In the last two decades Ganesha has been my constant companion and support and I have experienced his miraculous intervention many times in my life. He is the god of beginnings, the remover of obstacles, the bestower of knowledge, prosperity and much more. For me, he is also the best friend and big brother, who always watches out for me.
Since the last two months of 2019, I had been feeling this strong need to visit the renowned eight sacred temples associated with Lord Ganesha, known as the Ashtvinayak. This yearning in fact started with an unusual experience one dawn sometime in October last. As I got up from sleep I could see a small yellowish orange coloured Ganesha, it was as if he was sitting on my eyelids. He was the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes, and sent me into a frenzy to find and buy an orange Ganesha, as I thought this is what he wanted me to bring home. I couldn’t find the statue, but a couple of months later I felt driven to join a group tour with Kesari Tours and set off on this amazing journey of three days across the hinterlands of Maharashtra, covering three districts, namely Pune, Raigarh and Ahmednagar, to visit his sacred shrines.
The temples are in Morgaon, Siddhatek, Pali, Mahad, Thevur, Lenyandri, Ozar, Ranjangaon, little towns and villages that have interesting legends and lores associated with Lord Ganesha and the existence of the shrines.
All the idols of Lord Ganesha in these eight temples are Swayambhu, i.e. they are not crafted by the hands of man, but had emerged on their own. They were sculpted by nature.
We started from Mumbai early in the morning and passing the picturesque Malshej Ghat reached the caves of Lenyadri before noon. The spectacular rock cut Buddhist caves offer an imposing site from a distance, and as you approach the cave temple, the awe increases. The 283 steps to the temple are not an easy climb. It is in cave number 7 that the Lenyadri Ganesha resides, and as you walk through the rock cut entrance and have a darshan of the deity, the tough climb is forgotten. The naturally formed stone icon, is covered with orange vermilion and is in sharp contrast to the black stone walls. Here Ganesha appears in the form of Girijatmaja, the son of Parvati. The orange coloured Ganpati here is indicative of how goddess Parvati had crafted him with turmeric. He was born in Lenyadri and lived here for 12 years, it is believed.
The 1st century AD temple is simple yet majestic in the aura it creates, perched on a hill, with the landscape sprawled around it. For the aged, there are comfortable palkis available for as little as INR 1000 for a return trip to the caves. Pilgrims need to be careful of the simian friends, a group of mischievous monkeys who will keep eyeing your belongings, looking for food.
Three hours away from the wine country of Nasik is the town of Ozar and its famous Vigneshwara Temple. Enroute there are little villages with houses lined with hibiscus plants, sugarcane fields and a few vineyards also. Being a Bengali, I am aware that hibiscus is the favourite flower of Goddess Kali, it was a revelation for me that these red flowers are also Ganesha’s favourite and are always offered to him.
The beautiful little temple at Ozar, next to a river, has an interesting legend of Lord Ganesha defeating Vignasura (the demon of obstacles), and it is believed that obstacles cannot trouble the true devotees of the Lord.
Located about 50 kms from Pune, in Ranjangaon, is the magnificent Mahaganpati, who is known to have helped his father Lord Shiva in wreaking havoc on the demon named Tripurasura. I stood enthralled before the gigantic statue which has a beautiful crown adorning his head. It is said that the idol here has 10 hands and 10 trunks. He is flanked by his two wives Riddhi (prosperity) and Siddhi (spiritual attainment). The temple gets crowded in the evenings so it is advisable to buy a VIP pass for INR 50, to skip the long queues. Photography is not allowed inside any of the temples.
The next morning we headed to Morgaon, to pay our obedience at the Mayureshwar temple. Traditionally, most people going for Ashtvinayak start their journey from Morgaon and after visiting the other seven temples, once again come here and end the pilgrim trail. So this temple has a special importance in Ashtvinayak Yatra. Popular lore states that Ganesha took the incarnation of Mayureshwar (riding a peacock) to defeat the demon Sindhu and his army.
The next stop was Siddhatek temple in Ahmednagar district. Bhima river flows through the area. It is the only temple in the Ashtvinayak circuit where the idol has its trunk turned in the right direction. In all the other temples it is turned towards the left. It is said that Ganesha with the trunk turned right side is the giver of supernatural powers (siddhis), but not too easy to please. Lord Vishnu is supposed to have performed penance here to please Ganesha and acquire special powers.
Ganesha at the Chintamani temple in Theur in known to be an eradicator of worries. It is a large temple complex located about 25 kms from Pune. Another story says that when the arrogant prince Guna took the wish-fulfilling jewel Chintamani from Kapila sage, the latter asked for Ganesha’s help, who defeated the prince’s army and killed him. At his devotee’s behest Ganesha agreed to stay in Theur, where he is known as Chintamani.
The last two Ashtvinayak shrines are enroute from Pune to Mumbai, in Raigarh district, so were closer home. At Mahad, the idol of the Varadvinayak temple was found in the pond about 350 years ago. This is the only temple in the circuit where devotees are allowed to step inside the sanctum sanctorum and touch the idol, which was a deeply emotional experience for me.
At Ballaleshwar temple in Pali, Lord Ganesha’s shrine gets its name from his devotee, a young boy named Ballal, who defied strong parental opposition to worship Ganesha. The stone icon here is known as Ballaleshwar (Lord of Ballal). The eyes and navel of the icon are encrusted with diamonds.
By the end of the journey, I found that all the Ashtvinayak idols were orange in colour, they were smeared with vermilion at each temple. And I realised that it was not that he wanted me to bring an orange idol home, but make me visit his sacred shrines and seek his blessings.
How to reach: From Mumbai by bus or car, the total journey covers approximately 1200 kms. The distance is less if travelling from Pune.
Accommodation: Many of the little towns have budget hotels where you can halt for the night. The best option is staying at Pune and doing the whole circuit from there. We were put up at Lemon Tree Hotel, Hinjawadi, in Pune.
Best time to visit: September to April. Monsoon and summer months are best avoided.