As we approached the Ganesh temple on the day of the Holy Bath of Lord Ganesh we noticed women in saris and men in suits walking towards the temple to attend this significant religious event. However, there were a select few who were dressed casually, signaling that there was no official dress code of the temple, but most of the community “dress up” out of respect for their deity, a practice that is not unlike the Christian’s “Sunday best”. The languages spoken between the people of the community are primarily English and Hindi (which is the official language of India) while the services are conducted only in Hindi. Most of the devotees were of Indian descent, mainly from Southern India, but the temple is not exclusive to just this ethnic group. Also present at the service were one mixed couple with two children, an older white woman and man, and a young white lady dressed in a sari. It was surprising to see these people there since the service was held in Hindi. They were treated just the same as everyone else, and not at all rejected by the devotees within the temple; this shows how accommodating and accepting the religious community is to new members. Mr. Ganapathy Padmanabhan, Public Relations Officer of the Temple, said of the religion, “For Hinduism there is no initiation such as baptism required to become a Hindu. You simply just join and start practicing as you go along.”
Before the service started, we observed people socializing while others were already praying and reserving their spots on the big white sheets that were laid out in front of the Ganesh idol in preparation of the Holy Bath that was about to occur. When we spoke with Mr. Padmanabhan after the service, he mentioned that devotees are not supposed to socialize within the temple to keep from disturbing other members who wish to pray in silence. The temple is meant to be a place of peace and worship alone. Despite them breaking this “unspoken rule” of the temple, their socializing before the service began shows how well connected the community surrounding the temple is. An interesting fact about the devotees is that, although they do not know every single person by their names, they are able to recognize the faces because they see the same people attending the services every week, a sign of devotion in the community.
Another observation we made was how many of the younger generation were present at the service. Mr. Padmanabhan mentioned that over the years, many more youths have been coming to the temple. We believe this is due in part to the fact that while the neighborhood surrounding the temple is made up primarily of people of Indian descendent, this small community is within a larger Chinese neighborhood that encompasses the temple and its devotees, and also that many of the members of the temple are first generation immigrants causing them to instill the importance of Hinduism in their children as an attempt to hold on to their culture. The youths of the temple were taught by their parents to attend the services and continue to maintain the important of religion in their lives. This is similar to the idea of the domus in The Madonna of 115th by Robert Orsi, where Italian immigrants tried to enforce the family ideas onto the youths to preserve Italian culture and to keep it from being diluted by American ideals. The domus served as a somewhat effective tool in maintaining Italian culture and values for immigrants in Italian Harlem, and the same can be said about South Asian immigrants in Flushing. Although we did not witness a system like the domus in Italian Harlem, Mr . Padmanabhan distinctly said, “It is the duty of the older generation to teach the younger generation about the values of Hinduism.” By taking their children to the Ganesh Temple and teaching them the beliefs and practices of Hinduism, devotees of the temple hope to preserve their South Asian culture in their children, and for it to be passed on from generation to generation.
According to the 2000 Census Profile by the Asian American Federation of New York Census Information Center, 65% of New York City’s Indian American population lived in Queens (which translates to about 160,739 people). This shows how concentrated Indian Americans are in Queens, and how important it is for them to maintain a well-connected community. The 2000 Census Profile for Chinese Americans by the Asian American Federation reports that 39% of Chinese Americans in New York City live in Queens. Although this is a lower percentage compared to Indian Americans, the Chinese population in New York City is significantly greater, as it adds up to about 181,796 Asian Americans in Flushing, which is still more than the amount of Indian Americans in Flushing. The AAF lists Chinese Americans as the largest Asian American group in New York City, while Indian Americans are at a close second. Although there are many Indian Americans living in Queens, they are still outnumbered by Asian Americans, which causes the Indian American community to band together to hold on to their culture. The community around the Ganesh Temple in Flushing is an example of this; the South Asians generally stick together and try to preserve many aspects of their culture.
While in the temple it was hard to find a person that wasn’t devout, whether they were young or old they were dedicated and completely immersed in praying. There was a young girl who must have been around 13 years old walking around the Ganesh idol many times, reciting her prayers and stopping once in a while to touch the holy flame from the priest and touch her forehead in prayer. The way she carried herself made her seem much older than she was, the kind of dedication that we saw within her was not something that could be typically found in someone so young. We even observed a young boy who was chanting along very diligently with the priests during the service. We asked Mr. Padmanabhan what he thought about the younger generation and whether he felt that they were devout enough, and he told us that it really depended on how they were raised at home. We also observed another young lady who seemed to be around her early 20’s walking around the idol of Lord Ganesh. At first many other members were doing the exact same thing as her, but towards the end of the service she was the only person who was still walking around. She held a sheet of paper in her hands noting how many times she walked around the idol, and the numbers went up to the 50’s. We were told that walking around the idol was a way of showing your devotion just like praying and bringing offerings to the deity. The more one chooses to walk around, the deeper their devotion usually is.
Not only is the community surrounding the Ganesh Temple an interesting piece that makes up Flushing, the Temple itself also offers many types of services and activities.