One of the most glorious epochs in Indian history was when the Pala dynasty ruled over most of what is today Bengal, Bihar and Bangladesh between the 8th and 12th centuries AD. Although much of Pala art is Buddhist, it also has many images belonging to the Hindu pantheon. Stone carvings of Nataraja, Soorya, Uma Maheswara, Ganesa and Vishnu of superb workmanship belonging to this era can be seen in various places. Many of the metal sculptures of this period are also excellent pieces of art.
An image of Ganesa, carved of black stone, now in the Government Museum, Chennai, belongs to the Pala times. The stone on which it is carved is broken at the top, but fortunately, except for some minor damage, this image is intact.
The exquisite sculpture is of Nritta Ganapati. Ganesa is dancing on a full-blown lotus in tri-bhanga three bends in the body. He has eight hands and not four as is normally seen. His left leg, slightly bent, rests on the lotus. In the uppermost right hand, Ganesa holds a garland of beads (japa mala), held ever so delicately with just one finger. Another hand holds the axe (parasu), the third, unfortunately damaged, is in the gesture of assuring devotees not to fear (abhaya hasta), and the fourth right hand reaching down to the waist is holding an object not easily identifiable.
The topmost left hand is uplifted and does not hold any attribute so as to enable Vinayaka to depict various mudras. The second holds the elephant-goad (ankusa), the third has an object not easily identifiable, but could be the pasha (noose), and the fourth reaches out to a cupful of modaka. This image is much bejewelled with crown, necklaces, bangles, armlets and anklets.
Flanking the feet of the deity are tiny figures of two Sivaganas playing musical instruments. The one to the dancer's right is playing on two vertically placed drums, while the musician to the left is holding the cymbals. Both the artists are apparently watching the dancer in blissful rapture, going by the expression on their faces. On one side of the base of the pedestal of the image is Ganesa's mouse-vehicle (mooshika-vahana) and on the other side is a supplicant devotee.
The sensitive onlooker can actually visualise this stone sculpture of the dancing Ganesa come to life. This anonymous sculptor of the Pala times surely deserves our appreciation.
(The author is a historian focusing on temple art and architecture)