Attention New Yorkers: presenting a legitimate reason to take the 7 train. It is time to make your way to the Sri Maha Vallabha Ganapati Devasthanam, the largest Hindu temple in North America. Nestled on a cozy residential street, sharing a corner with an Indian grocery store, the decorative temple tower is impossible to miss. The grandiosity of it, juxtaposed next to the surrounding apartments, make it appear even more distinguished and sacred.
I went early on a weekday morning, hoping to partake in the Siva Abhishekam, an honoring of the Siva. Even though I respect the Hindu religion greatly, and am continually inspired by the fantastical stories and elaborate tales of of the deities, I did not know quite what to expect. (I assumed my visit would mirror my tours of St. Peter’s Cathedral: go in, take a few pictures, say a blessing, buy a rosary, and a postcard to send to grandma, and go.
Walking through the entranceway, lined with engraved pillars that bore the visage of the gods, I sensed my assumptions had been wrong as the palpable reverence greeted me at the door. I could the smell of incense and hear the humming of mantra and the ringing of bells.
Before entering the building, shoes are taken off. This simple act of setting them aside (or if you’re like me stashing them in my purse — leaving expensive boots in the entranceway is asking for a barefoot walk home in the slush, in my opinion) establishes an immediate awareness of the humility and sacredness to be found inside the temple.
At the front desk, I explained that it was my first time. I had just missed the formal blessing of Siva, I was told, but could join the remaining worshippers in their chanting of prayers. I walked in to find a group of older women sitting on the ground before a shrine in the middle of the room. I took a seat behind them, closing my eyes and listening to the chants of Om Namah Sivaya. After about twenty minutes of steady repetition, one by one the women got up from the floor, walked in front of the shrine, gave a deep bow, and then turned to go.
The temple consists of one main room with the shrines to the deities lining the perimeter. Each contains an ornate statue that has adorned by flowers, notes, money, and other offerings. One can perform a puja, which is a ritualistic act of worship to a particular deity.
The central shrine is the largest, and contains an ornate statue of Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. While there, I witnessed various forms of personal worship, from a couple walking in concentric circles around a shrine, to a woman fervently praying while waving her arms above her head and then quickly touching the floor in cycles. Another man lay on his back with his head towards the Ganesha shrine and arms crossed at his chest. The temple welcomes any personal form of prayer that facilitates a connection with the divine.
Anyone may enter during normal hours, and throughout the day the temple priests will perform various sacred blessings that honor each of the deities. The priests burn incense, chant, adorn with flowers, perfume the statues, and place foodstuffs such as rice, ghee, and fruit around the base of the idol. These sacred acts are known as homas.
Besides the daily homas and abishekams, the temple hosts special celebrations throughout the year, all of which are highly anticipated by the Hindu community. The next to come is the celebration for Lord Siva, or Maha Sivaratri Pancha-Dina Mahotsavam. This celebration takes place from February 24th through the 28th, with events taking place throughout the week.
The temple also boasts a dedication to community development. Youth programs, adult education classes, and Sunday yoga classes are open to all. Worshippers can convalesce in the canteen on the lower level, which has been recognized as having some of the most delicious and authentic Indian fare in New York.
Despite whether one is versed in the Hindu tradition and lineage, or like me, a curious yet ignorant visitor, the resonation of the sacred and a sense of the auspicious cannot be missed.
At one point during my visit, a priest took a bouquet of yellow carnations and broke the blossoms off from their stems. He brought them up to the statue, repeating a prayer as he touched them one by one to the statue. He then walked toward the small crowd that had gathered to observe the Agama, (a traditional ceremony to commemorate the scriptures,º bringing an open flame of an oil lamp along with the flowers. Each person was invited to take a flower and then place their hands near the flame.
I watched as visitors drew to the center to receive the blessing. I stood back, not wanting to interfere, until the priest smiled and nodded towards me. He handed me a flower and raised the flame near to my face. I closed my eyes and like the elderly woman before me, I tucked the flower in my hair.
As I was leaving, the woman who had brought the flowers to the priest approached me, touched my hand, and whispered something almost inaudibly. Though I could not understand, I got the distinct feeling she had said, welcome home.