Witnessing the Bathing of a Deity

Ganesha

In the center of a large open Hindu temple in Queens, New York,  a gleaming black statue of Ganesha sits enshrined in front of a large  audience of worshipers. For the gathered believers, it is not simply a piece of stone, but a deity, a manifestation of a god on earth. A shirtless Hindu priest in a bright marigold-colored Dhoti, traditional Indian garb that resembles a sheet wrapped intricately around the legs and hips, stands within the shrine and prepares for the Sunday ritual.

Rhythmic chanting from priests in the front row drowns out all other chatter and noise in the temple. The temple smells sweet, suggestive of incense and spices. Hindus believe in the incarnation of god in many forms. The stone images of those incarnations, with flowers draped around their necks, line the walls of the square space.  Women in bright saris and men in robes walk around the perimeter of the temple, some chanting along with the priests and others stopping in front of individual deities. Many worshippers wear more Americanized street clothes like khakis and crewneck sweaters, but no shoes are in sight.  People gather in front of the shrine of Ganesha, with the words “Sri Maha Vallabha Ganapati” written on a plaque above the curtained shrine. The Abhishek Puja ritual of bathing is about to begin in the Ganesh temple of Flushing, Queens.

The skylights let in plenty of the soft February light, so that few lamps are needed. Several men gather around the shrine, which is made of dark black stone. There is a drawn curtain revealing the shrine’s interior. The priest begins pouring water over Ganesha steadily and abundantly, so that it rushes down the face and trunk.  In the audience, families with small children sit and observe, at times getting up to walk around the temple when the little ones get restless.

The priest then begins pouring milk, then more water, and then some yogurt curds. When the bright white of the curds runs down the deity’s face, the priest makes sure to wipe the eyes. In between washings, he places yellow powder on Ganesha’s forehead, on the area known as the ajna. The yellow powder is most likely sandalwood or turmeric. He then scatters flowers upon the brow.

The chanting is amplified throughout the temple space, and the priest’s assistant mouths the words as he hands along things like containers of milk and platters of fruit. The assistant wears a striped polo shirt and has graying hair. He stands to the left of the shrine during the entirety of the ritual, chants, and looks out over the crowd of worshippers. In the chant, the word “shanti” is heard frequently, which translates to something like “may there be peace.”  The bathing is a form of worship, and Hindus believe that such an act pleases the deity. Water and purification are central tenets of the Hindu faith.

After each washing, the priest waves a ritual lamp in front of Ganesha in a circular motion before holding it towards the audience, while people hold up their joined hands towards the shrine as if receiving a blessing. The priest continues to bathe the deity in sweet liquids like orange juice, ghee, honey and sugar.

Towards the end of the bathing, the chanting stops abruptly for several seconds. When it resumes a man dressed in all white comes and rings a large bell. The priest draws the curtain. Another assistant, this one with a beard and colorful shawl around his white-clad shoulders, begins to walk around with a vessel and a flower to sprinkle sanctified water on members of the audience. After he finishes, people stand and begin to talk and congregate around the temple or gather their things to leave. Some stay to pray. Many go downstairs to the temple canteen for a plate of traditional Indian food. Although the ritual is finished, the temple remains abuzz with activity, and the smell of incense remains strong as the songs of worshippers drifts throughout the building.

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