India is a land where myth, history, legend and faith are often blended inextricably. One of the examples of this is that in India, the Hindu religion has a tradition of sacred geographies, where diverse religious places get connected to each other over time and become part of a pilgrimage or a tirtha yatra. Four dhams in four directions, the trail of twelve Jyotirlingas scattered across the country, the 108 Divya Desams and the Shakti peethas whose number ranges from anywhere between 51 to 108, are all part of this unique Hindu tradition.
In Maharashtra, there are a group of eight Ganesha temples in and around Pune district, collectively known as the Ashtavinayak, which form a sacred geography. Pilgrims have been coming here for the past 300 years. While no exact date of origin of these shrines is known, the current temples were mostly built during the Peshwa rule in the 18th century CE.
The eight temples that make up the Ashtavinayak are Moreshwar temple at Morgaon, Siddhivinayak temple at Shiddhatek, Ballaleshwar temple at Pali, Varadavinayak temple at Mahad, Chintamani temple at Theur, Girijatmaj temple at Lenyadri, Vighneshwar temple at Ozar and the Mahaganpati temple at Ozar. Four of these temples are in Pune district, two in western end of Ahmadnagar district and other two in the eastern end of Mahad district. All these temples are within a radius of 100 miles from Pune city.
While, there is no specific route in which the Ashtavinayak yatra is performed, a particular order is popular among pilgrims. People begin their yatra from the Moreshwar temple located in Morgaon on the banks of river Karha in the Baramati taluka of Pune district, around 80 kms from Pune city. The place is named after Moraya Gosavi, the saint of the Ganapatya sect of Ganesha worshippers, which existed between the 13th and 17th centuries CE. The Samadhi of Moraya Gosavi still exists in Chinchwad area of Pune and attracts a large number of devotees.
From Moreshwar, the pilgrim moves towards Siddhivinayak temple located on a hillock on the banks of the river Bhima in Siddhatek in the Karjat taluka of Ahmadnagar district, around 100 kms from Pune city. The current temple was built by Maratha ruler, Ahilyabai Holkar, sometime in the 17th century CE. A unique feature of the idol here is that Ganesha’s trunk is turned to the right, making it very unique. The devotees believe this is the most-fierce but the most powerful avatar of Ganpati.
The next temple is the Ballaleshwar Temple at Pali in the Raigad district, just below the Western Ghats. It is believed that original temple was built in 1640 CE and renovated and extended several times. The temple has a huge Portuguese bell of panchadhatu (five metals), that was captured by Maratha commander Chimaji Appa, after his conquest of Vasai in 1739, and presented to the temple. Around 38 kms from Pali, is the next Ashtavinayak at Mahad, called the Varadavinayak. The legend goes that this idol was found in 1690 CE in an adjoining lake and it was Ramji Mahadev Biwalkar, the Maratha subedar of Kalyan who built this temple in 1725 CE. This temple has an oil lamp, called Anantadipa, which is believed to have been kept burning since 1892 CE.
From the two Ashtavinayaks at Pali and Mahad below the ghats, the pilgrims visit the next Ganpati at the Chintamani temple in Theur, around 30 kms from Pune. Theur was a summer retreat of the Peshwas who built gardens and mansions here. The temple is a fine example of Peshwa style of architecture, with a grand sabha mandap and a fine black stone fountain in the middle.
The next shrine, the Girijatmaj temple around 100 kms away in Junnar at Lenyadri, within the former Buddhist caves up the hill. The shrine is a rock-cut cave with eight pillars with carvings of elephants and lions at the entrance, atop 238 steps.
The seventh shrine of Vighnahar is located in Ozar on the banks of river Kukadi, in the Junnar taluka around 90 kms from Pune. The temple is believed to have been built around 1785 CE. The main idol of Ganesha as Vighnahar (Remover of obstacles) has two large rubies for eyes and a diamond on its forehead.
The eighth and last in the series of Ashtavinayak temples is the Maha Ganpati temple situated in Ranjangaon around 60 kms from Pune. The temple is designed in such a way that during ‘Dakshinayan’ and ‘Uttarayan’ (the summer and winter solstice) the rays of the sun fall directly on the deity. This temple too dates back to the Peshwa times and was extended and renovated several times over. The visit to this eighth shrine completes the Ashtavinayak yatra of the pilgrims.
There is no single legend or myth that connects these temples together, nor were they built by a common religious sect or conform to a single architectural style. So what groups them together as a group called Ashtavinayak?
Sadly, little academic research has been done on the origins of diverse religious places coming together and forming sacred geographies. One of the few books on the subject is Connected Places: Region, Pilgrimage, and Geographical Imagination in India by Anne Feldhaus. In her book, she looks at different religious places in Maharashtra and associations are formed through mythology. Feldhaus finds it interesting that all the eight temples grouped together as Ashtavinayak are within the 100 km radius of Pune city. She explains:
‘[For the local residents]… The existence of Ashtavinayak as a numbered set makes possible a sense of their area (Pune), as a region. Even without travelling to all of them, the residents of this region can think of eight of them as a unit by saying the name ‘Ashtavinayak’ or by looking at the combines holy picture that is multiplied many times on living room walls, refrigerator doors and in household shrines throughout the region’
Feldhaus believes that grouping of these temples in a numbered set brings them together in the mind of the devotee. Going back in history, it is interesting to note that most of these Ashtavinayak temples came into prominence during the Peshwa rule in the 18th century CE. Prior to the rise of the Peshwas, Ganesha worship was not prominent in the Deccan region, where mostly temples of Shiva, Vishnu and Devi were found.
Ganesha was the traditional family deity of the members of the Kokanastha Brahmin community from the Konkan coast, which the Peshwa family belonged to. The rise in wealth and power of the Peshwa court at Pune in the 18th century meant that Ganesha temples around the region received large royal patronage, which included the Ashtavinayak temples. However, history, sacred geography and academics apart, for the devout, the Ashtavinayak temples are Swayambhu or ‘Self Manifested’, and Jagrut or ‘Awakened’ which means that all the wishes of the devotees are fulfilled. This is what makes the draw of the Ashtavinayak Yatra so powerful and enduring.
While it was Lokmanya Tilak who made Ganpati worship a mass public celebration, the worship of Ganpati goes to ancient times. The oldest known Ganesha in India is found in Udayagiri caves in Vidisha and dates back to the 5th century CE. Over centuries, the popularity of Ganesh worship has only grown exponentially. Such is the allure of the Ganesha.