In a largely residential corner of Flushing, Queens, the carved cement tower of Sri Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devasthanam, or “Ganesha Temple,” peers over the tops of single-family homes. Consecrated in 1977, the building is one of the first Hindu temples in the U.S., and helped kick of a boom in American Hindu temples. The choice of Lord Ganesha as central deity made strategic sense, since Hindus across India know and revere the elephant-headed son of Shiva. Hindus pray to “the remover of obstacles” before starting school, building a house, or getting married. He is the Lord of Beginnings.
Once a year, tens of thousands of worshipers from across the US – and some from India – descend on this quiet neighborhood for a nine-day celebration. According to temple president Uma Mysorekar, the intent of this late summer festival is to energize the deity, who, in turn, energizes his followers. Followers register their fervor for Ganesha in volume and repetition. Over the nine days, devotees prepare and distribute 50,000 meals. They intone Ganesha’s moola mantra, a short Sanskrit chant, some 400,000 times. Each day, priests festoon a statue of Ganesha in the center of the temple in a different colors – from white ash covering to red powder – and anoint him with honey, yogurt, clarified butter, turmeric paste, sandalwood paste, and saffron. On the final day, Lord Ganesha is washed with gallon upon gallon of milk, before being lifted onto a sixteen-foot high chariot. The temple assigns a team to walk before the litter with a giant pole to lift up the electric wires at intersections as Ganesha is paraded through the streets. For everyone else, their job is to follow close behind – dancing, singing, and sharing treats on this culmination of the festival. It’s said that, being a generous soul, if you can’t come to the temple, Ganesha comes to you. Parading through the Queens streets, this universal god blesses all – Hindu and non-Hindu alike.
Special thanks to the editors of the non-fiction platform Narrative.ly, where this piece premiered.