Dancing with Ganesha

For one afternoon each year, a quiet corner of Queens becomes a kaleidoscopic celebration of Hindu life.

Story by Matt Ozug, Julia Elliott & Scott Elliott | February 20, 2013

The carved cement tower of Sri Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devasthanam, or “Ganesha Temple,” peers over the tops of single-family homes on a largely residential corner of Flushing, Queens. Consecrated in 1977, the building was one of the first Hindu temples in the U.S. The choice of Lord Ganesha as central deity made strategic sense, because Hindus across India know and revere this 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 the 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 fifty thousand meals. They intone Ganesha’s moola mantra, a short Sanskrit chant, some four hundred thousand times. Each day, priests festoon a Ganesha statue in the center of the temple in different colors–from white ash 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. Everyone else’s job is to follow close behind–dancing, singing and sharing treats on this culmination of the festival. It’s said that if you can’t come to the temple, Ganesha, being a generous soul, comes to you. Parading through the Queens streets, this universal god blesses all–Hindu and non-Hindu alike.


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