Maharashtra's famous Ashtavinayaka Temples

Spread over the region that surrounds Pune and Nagar, these historic shrines – with Swayambhoo or nature-created idols – are dedicated to Maharashtra’s favourite deity Ganesha and are visited by lakhs of devotees every year!

Say the words ‘Ganpati Bappa Morya’ – and the hearts of all Maharashtrians begin to dance with joy! This is because historically, Ganesha has been the beloved deity of this seaside state where temples – ranging from the most ornately carved ancient shrines to the simple roadside ones set up by alms-seeking citizens – abound in huge numbers. In Maharashtra’s cities as well as far-flung villages, Ganesha has an all-pervading presence. However, why Ganesha became such a popular and darling deity of Maharashtra is a historical secret that few in the modern generation know.

The proud history of the state shows that the rulers of the Bhonsle dynasty – to which Chhatrapati Shivaji belonged (1627-1680) – were devotees of Durga or Amba and Shiva or Khandoba of Jejuri. There are historical references to the fact that Shivaji helped to rebuild the Tuljapur Bhavani temple and the Mallikarjuna Shiva temple in Sri Sailam. Legend says that the Goddess Bhavani gave him a sword called Bhavani, with which he fought many battles. The sword, according to records, is presently in a British museum and the efforts by several chief ministers to bring it back to India – prominently by A R Antulay – have appeared in the media. Bhavani was the deity worshipped by the Maratha rulers of Maharashtra and their war cry was Jai Bhavani! Apart from Tulja Bhavani, the temples of Kolhapur Mahalakshmi, Saptashrungi near Nasik and Renuka of Mahur are the other three Shakti Peethas which are famous in this seaside state. Devi temples abound in the 160 forts which Shivaji built and also in palaces or wadas of the Maratha era.

However, this scene changed when the Peshawas, or the prime ministers of the Maratha rulers, came to ascend the throne after the death of Chhatrapati Shahu in 1710 and became powerful in many parts of India. They were Brahmins and used their astute political strategy and knowledge of warfare to build a huge empire reaching as far as Haryana till 1812. The family deity of the Peshwas was Ganesha and they not only built many temples to this deity in Pune, but all over Maharashtra. The Ashtavinayka temples, now famous as pilgrimage centres for lakhs every year, attained their glory during the Peshwa period and were further immortalized because Ganesha worship became a court ritual.

Much later, in the British regime, it was turned into a community event by Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak who used it as a platform to promote the cause of patriotism and the fight for independence from the British. Ever since he started the Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav in every lane of Mumbai and Pune, Ganesha became the beloved patron god of Maharashtra and his worship promoted all arts including music, dance, theatre, literature and intellectual debate. Today, not only Maharashtrians, but all those who love Ganesha and who have come to Maharashtra to earn their living, celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi – once in Bhadrapad and once in Magh – with pomp and pageantry. Hordes of people go on a pilgrimage to the Ashtavinayaka temples which happen to be near Mumbai and Pune. Situated in Pune and Nagar districts, they can be visited within a weekend or three days by car or bus. The legends behind each temple can be read in books on the subject. These temples are:

1.    The Mayureshwar Ganesha temple stands in Morgoan, which is 64 km from Pune.  Standing on the bank of the Karha River, the temple faces north and strangely has several Islamic architectural features.  The reason is that Sardar Gole, who worked for the Bidarshah Bahamani regime built it. Records say that the Badshah gave grants to the temple. The temple is surrounded by a tall wall with four minarets at its four corners. It has been repaired several times during the Nizamshahi rule too. Some reports say that the construction of the temple is like a Sufi Dargah, possibly because the workers were of Islamic origin! The Ganesha here is called Mayureshwar or Moreshwar because legend says that this town was full of peacocks in olden days. The sculptures of a big mouse and a Nandi face the sanctum and outside are two deepmalas, which are lit on festive days.

Around the temple, there are eight Ganesha idols with different names – Ekdanta, Mahodar, Gajanan, Lambodar, Vikat, Natraj, Dhumravarna and Vakratund. The sanctum has the idol of Ganesha with diamonds studded in his eyes and belly. The hood of a snake stands erect over his head. The temple was certainly built before 1788 as per records and has been renewed from time to time. The famous Ganesha devotee Morya Goswami was born in Morgaon and having found an idol of Ganesha in the river, he built a temple in Chinchwad near Pune. His Samadhi also stands in Chinchwad. Samarth Ramdas, the guru of Shivaji also visited the Morgaon temple and wrote the famous aarti ‘Sukhakarta Dukhharta….’ which is sung in every home today.

2.    The Siddhivinayaka Ganesha temple in Siddhatek stands on the banks of the River Bhima and is about 101 miles from Pune. Facing the north, the temple was built in the Peshwa period. The huge gateway leads pilgrims to the Sabhamandap which was built by the Sardar Shrimant Narayan Mairal. The sanctum was built by Ahilayabai Holkar of Indore. The stone-engraved throne with a brass cupola houses the sitting idol of Ganesha with his trunk turning right. Other deities like Shiva, Shivai and Vishnu are represented by small idols nearby. This temple too is associated with Morya Goswami. The Peshwas built a beautiful ghat on the River Bhima at this sacred town and many pilgrims have a sacred bath in the river.

3.    The Ballaleshwar Ganesha at Pali is the next temple and is 110 km from Pune and 30 km from Karjat. Facing the east, the temple is built with solid stone like a Maratha wada with iron rods bonding the stones in the walls. There are two small water bodies in front of the temple as well as a sabhamandap which is 40 ft long and 20 ft. broad. The santum is 15 ft tall and is ornately decorated with carvings. The idol is broad and there are diamonds placed in the eyes and the belly. The sanctum is decorated with silver carvings too. The mouse, Ganesha’s vehicle, stands in front with a laddoo in his hands. In the environs of the temple, there is a huge bell cast in panchdhatoo or a mixture of five metals. It is said that Chimaji Appa, the great army general of the Peshwas, brought this bell from the Vasai fort which he won back from the Portuguese. There are many shrines around the temple and legend says that the name Ballaleshwar was given to Ganesha here because of Ballala, his great devotee.

4.    The Varadavinayaka of Mahad or Madh is in the Raigad district and can be accessed from Karjat. It is said that this area was once covered with dense forests and that many Rishis performed penance in it. One such great devotee of Ganesh, Gritsamada, succeeded in his prayers and invited Ganesha to be present in the forest. Ganesha granted this boon and is therefore called Varadavinayaka (giver of boons) here. Facing the east, the temple looks like a tiled house. The sanctum is built of stone and has elephant heads carved on all four sides. The main idol is accompanied by those of Riddhi and Siddhi. The idol of Ganesha on the throne with his trunk turning left is beautiful and well formed out of stone.  Behind the temple, there is a small pond and other temples dedicated to Devi. The pond is full of water and it is said that the idol of Ganesha was found in this tank. The temple was built in 1730 and the idol was consecrated in it thereafter. The Peshawa’s Sardar of Kalyan Ramaji Mahadev Bibalkar took the lead in building the temple. The environs of the temple are green and peaceful. Many come here for meditation and to experience the beauty of nature.

5.    The Chintamani Ganesha of Theur is famous because of the memorial to Peshwa Madhavrao I and his wife Ramabai who is said to have committed Sati here after her husband’s death. Just 22 km from Pune, the temple stands on the confluence of the Rivers Mula, Mutha and Bhima. Facing the north, the temple has a wooden sabhamandap. According to legend, the temple was built by Chintamani Maharaj, a descendant of the Morya Goswami and Madhavrao Peshwa then added the wooden mandap to develop the temple further. The stone path which leads to the river was also built by the Peshwa. History records that the Mughal Kind Aurangzen donated the village Theur to this temple; however, today the temple is governed by the Morya Goswami Trust from Chinchwad0 which is near Pune. History says that Madhavrao Peshwa was such a staunch devotee of this temple that he built a wada near it so that he could worship Ganesha every day and donated a crown of priceless pearls to the deity.  During his last illness, he came and lived here till death came to him. His wife Ramabai also stayed here and performed Sati after his death. A Tulsi Vrindavan commemorates this tragic event.

6.    The Girijatmaka Ganesha temple of Lenyadri in the Junnar district stands in an extraordinary scenic spot. 145 miles from Mumbai, but nearer to Talegaon on the Express Highway. The shrine is in a cave in a hill which oversees the Pushpavati River. This is one temple that tests the endurance of the pilgrim because there are 283 stone steps leading to the hill top cave temple. In dry weather, pilgrims have to walk across the river but in the Monsoons, sometimes a boat has to be hired. The temple is carved into the stone walls of the cave and is not manmade. The cave is spacious – 51 ft. wide and 57 ft. long – and is created from a single boulder. There are no pillars, making this cave one of its kind in Maharashtra. The santum is decorated with six small pillars and the heads of an elephant, tiger, lion etc are carved on them. The idol of Ganesha is rough hewn out of the rock and its face is turned inward. Many researchers have tried to find the face completely but without success. Legend says that Ganesha here was angry with his mother Girija or Parvati and turned his face away from her, giving the idol the look of a backward turning child with a rather flying trunk. He is therefore called Girijatmaka or son of Girija in this shrine. Other idols of Shiva, Ganesh, Hanuman etc are placed on a small platform alongside. There are 18 more caves in the hill with sculptures but they are dark and pilgrims are not able to access them.

7.    The Shrivighneshwar Temple in Ozar stands eight km. from the Pune-Nashik road. Situated near the Kukdi River, the temple faces the east and is surrounded by a strong stone wall. Dwarapalas guard the entrance and the spacious galleries surround the shrine to facilitate circumambulation for devotees. The idol of Vighneshwar Ganesha sits royally in a beautifully carved and painted sanctum. A black stone mouse stands in front of the sanctum. His trunk turned towards the left, Ganesha here has rubies in his eyes and a diamond studded in his Tilak. Riddhi and Siddhi – two goddesses associated with Ganesha – stand on either side. The surrounding of the temple offer a view of all sacred trees. The temple was built by Bajirao Peshwa I and he gave the temple enough funds and property so that its worship could continue uninterrupted over the centuries. Chimaji Appa, who led the Maratha armies against the Portuguese at the Vasai Fort, and built a golden spire on this temple to celebrate the victory. The temple has two Deepmalas outside and these are lit up on festive days. Thousands pray here for relief from sorrow and pain which are the greatest obstacles to a peaceful life. Vighneshwara is the remover of all obstacles and is popular for his benevolence.

8.    The Mahaganapati Temple of Ranjangaon is on the Pune Nagar highway – just 50 km from the metro city. Facing the east, the temple has a sabhamandap built by Sardar Kibe over the sanctum built by Peshwa Madhavrao I. The architecture of the temple is so superb that the sun’s ray’s fall on the idol as the sun traverses from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn every year. Here too, the idol is beautifully formed, with the Riddhi and Siddhi idols on its sides. However, it is said that the ancient idol of Ganesha from this temple is stored in an underground cellar below. This idol has ten trunks and 20 arms. According to legend, this idol was hidden from invaders and remained there for centuries.

All Ganesha-related festivals are celebrated at all eight temples with great pomp and pageantry. Apart from the Ashtavinayakas, Maharashtra has other famous Ganesha temples. These are: Kasba Peth in Pune, Sarasbag in Pune, Ganesha on the banks of the Krishna in Wai, Kadav in Raigad dist, Titwala in Thane dist, GanpatiPule near Ratnagiri, Siddhivinayaka in Mumbai, Hedvi in Ratnagiri dist and so on.

All over India too, there are historic temples of Ganesha. Most of these are in Peninsular India. Some of the famous ones are Idgunji, Kudamule, Batu Ganesha in Gokarna,  Halebid and Vijayanagar relics in Karnataka,  In Kerala, there is a temple in Madhupur-Maddur. In Tamil Nadu, a Ganesha temple stands near Trichy. There is one each near Rameshwaram and Pondicherry. In Orissa, the Lingaraj temple has a Ganesha shrine. In Ujjain, the Mahakaleshwar temple has a Ganesha shrine and lastly, Varanasi Vishveshwar temple too, has the Dhundiraj Ganesha. Most temples in India have an idol of Ganesh carved on the entrance or in the santum as per temple architecture rules.

 Mayureshwar  Chintamani in Theur
 Ashtavinayaka in Maharashtra  

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