How Ganesha Got His Elephant Head and Other Stories

Symbolism and sculpture at the Asia Society
February 11, 2014 Updated: March 5, 2014

NEW YORK—Two current exhibitions and an upcoming one at the Asia Society will seek to decipher symbolism in the religious arts of India and the Himalayas. 

How Ganesha got his elephant head (it involves a bit of surgery) and other stories are introduced in Tales of Wonder (through May 4). The exhibit features several Indian sculptures, a watercolor, and a painted tapestry, all depicting the various deities of Hinduism and Indian epics. Audio and text explain what they symbolize, how they can be identified by their accouterments, and reveal how static icons convey narratives.

Himalayan Sculpture from the Asia Society Museum Collection (through May 18) is comprised of four representations of bodhisattvas—beings who aid people on the path to enlightenment. Those familiar with East Asian depictions of Avalokiteshvara, also known as the Bodhisattva of Compassion, will learn about the different iconography associated with her in Himalayan art. 

Both current exhibits heavily feature objects from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, which make up a large part of the Asia Society’s permanent collection of Asian and Asian-American art. 

Golden Visions of Densatil, opening on Feb. 19, will be the first to explore works salvaged from a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that was largely destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution. 

The last Westerner to visit the monastery was Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci in 1948. His writings and photographs figure prominently in our current understanding of this lost site, which included a special form of memorial stupa that towers with levels upon levels of sculptures representing the journey to enlightenment.

Works on view come from public and private collections in the United States and Europe. Today, the most complete collection of objects from Densatil resides in the Capital Museum in Beijing. 


Asia Society Museum
725 Park Ave.
New York, NY 10021