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An Elephant in NYC: The Ganesha Temple in Queens

article-imageElephant at the Flushing, Queens, temple in 2009 (all photographs by the author)

Amidst the detached houses and backyard kiddie pools of Flushing, Queens, the elephant-headed Lord Ganesha receives visitors and devotees to the Hindu Temple Society of North America’s Šri Mahã Vallabha Ganapati Devasthãnam. As the presiding deity and a prominent god in the Hindu pantheon, Lord Ganesha’s shrine sits at the focal point of the sunlit temple space.

article-imageGanesh Chaturthi (Ganesha’s birthday) in September 2012

Ganesha, the son of Shiva, is the remover of obstacles and inspires intense devotion in the worshippers who come to ask his blessings. Temple-goers bring offerings on a daily basis, but for special occasions — such as Ganesha’s birthday, Ganesh Chaturthi — elaborate gifts of food are presented. In 1995, the “milk miracle” was witnessed at the Queens temple when brass statues of Ganesha reportedly drank milk offerings held under their trunks. 

article-imageGanesh Chaturthi (Ganesha’s birthday) in September 2012

article-imageGanesh Chaturthi (Ganesha’s birthday) in September 2012

For particularly auspicious ceremonies like the consecration of altars or the infusion of divine energy into temple statues, a live elephant attends the festivities. Upon the Temple’s re-consecration in 2009, Minnie the elephant graciously accepted the respectful touches and offerings of an admiring crowd. (Minnie’s trainer mentioned that she also does weddings.)

article-imageMinnie the elephant

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The Ganesha Temple is one of the oldest and largest Hindu temples in the United States, claiming more than 20,000 devotees on its rolls. It conducts daily services, holds classes and events in its community center, and hosts festival celebrations throughout the year. 

The Temple Society was formed in 1970, and early services were conducted in a small frame house on the site of today’s temple. A larger structure was completed in 1977 and multi-million dollar renovations in the 2000s included the installation of thousands of tons of granite carved in India by hundreds of artisans and reconstructed at the Flushing complex. While Ganesha is the presiding deity of the Queens temple, more than 40 others are worshipped there, as well.

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“Interior spaces of American Hindu temples are designed to be more communal as compared with the intimate spaces within traditional Hindu temples,” wrote Mary McGee, Associate Professor of Classical Hinduism at Columbia University, in an article for the New York Landmarks Conservancy

On sunny mornings in the Ganesha Temple, adherents make their way to the shrines through the brilliant spears of light admitted by numerous skylights, but the sense of community in the main temple area penetrates even to the fluorescent-lit basement vegetarian canteen. There, kitchen staff serve up both food offerings for temple deities and delicious South Indian vegetarian dishes for cafeteria-goers. (Generally open 8:30am-9:00pm)

Visitors are welcome to the Ganesha Temple, but are expected to respectfully follow temple rules (e.g. shoes are not allowed inside).

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Erin Chapman is the co-editor of The American Guide, where a version of this article originally appeared. 


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