Children who were running around the temple during the prayer service, uninterested, perked up at the start of the parade for the final day of Ganesha Visarjan.
Catching their interest was the statue of the Hindu god Ganesha leading a boisterous procession Friday at the Vaikunth Hindu Jain Temple of South Jersey in the Pomona section of Galloway Township.
A gold crown adorned Ganesha’s single-tusked elephant head, and a bright shawl covered his upper body. A large belly was revealed, a symbol of holding the world’s knowledge, and his legs were crossed, covered in loose silk pants, with toes peeking out.
The statue was lifted from its place in the prayer hall by four men, who were followed by women carrying brass pots with coconuts on top. A group of people followed, including two drummers and a woman holding symbols, while people chanted, “Ganpati Bapa Moreya!” which means, “Hail Lord Ganesha!” as the procession exited the temple’s main door.
More than 250 people packed the prayer hall for the end of the 11-day festival, which has grown in popularity locally with the growth of the Asian Indian population. The group has grown from the few hundred who initially came to work in Atlantic City as doctors and engineers decades ago to around 5,000, or about 2 percent of the population in Atlantic County, according to 2010 census numbers.
For some on Friday, the services brought back memories of past celebrations.
“I started organizing (in Mumbai) when I was in fourth grade,” said Yogesh Thakur, 45, of Vineland. He recalled how the festival in his neighborhood soon became a huge celebration that lit up his whole street.
“For all 11 days, we had a movie every night on a big screen,” Thakur said of his home in India. The screen would be placed in the middle of the street and was so thin that you could watch the mirrored image of the movie from the opposite side, he said. And both sides filled up quickly each night.
It is customary in places such as India for the statue of Ganesha to be immersed in a body of water on the final day of the festival, but Thakur said he was not upset that could not happen Friday because of the lack of a environmental permit. He said he hopes that tradition eventually can be realized locally.
“There are eco-friendly (statues) made out of a sand or clay that will dissolve,” rather than the traditional ones made from plaster of Paris, he said.
Carrying the statue of Ganesha around the building signifies the final day of celebrations for the Hindu god. It is the day to bid farewell to him and thank him for visiting your home for the past 10 days, said priest Renuji.
She said Ganesha has been a guest for the past 11 days, and it is now time for him to go back. The departure leaves a pleasant feeling for both sides, so in a similar fashion, Ganesha is sent on his way home to the Himalayas.
There are many stories about Hindu gods either surrounding their existence or pertaining to life lessons.
Ganesha’s stories teach about size, intelligence and adapting to one’s surroundings.
Each Hindu god has an animal with which they are associated as an “informant” or “vehicle” to get word of worldly happenings, Renuji said, and Ganesha’s is a mouse. The mouse can get in and out of the tiniest corners, in comparison to Ganesha’s larger body.
The lesson is that each person has their own strengths and weaknesses — and when joined can create a strong partnership, she said.
A story that is usually shared during the celebrations for Durga, another name for Ganesha’s mother, is about Ganesha’s wife — a banana tree.
“Ganesha’s mother took a banana plant, wrapped a sari around it and gave it in marriage to Ganesha because no woman in the world wanted to marry him because of his elephant head,” according to a short explanation published last year in a book by Devdutt Pattnaik, “99 Thoughts of Ganesha.”
As with most tales from ancient times, transfer by word of mouth changes the significance or the details about the story. But one editor of an online news media site in India, Anwesha Sarkar on boldsky.com, said,”In the eastern part of India, mainly Bengal and Assam ... a freshly cut banana plant is draped in a (sari) and placed next to Ganesha as his wife. Actually, the Kala bou (bride of Banana plant) has no connection according to scriptures. This was a local and primitive practice to worship Mother Earth for a bountiful harvest.”
Whatever the reason for the story, it is not a strange sight to see elephants eating bananas in India or Sri Lanka.
In Galloway on Friday, a tray of fruits and sweets, including bananas, was offered to Ganesha, while all worshippers entered an adjoining hall to enjoy a hot meal. At the end of each celebration, traditional food is served along with a variety of sweets.
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