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Whirlwind of divinity sweeps through Flushing

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For a brief series of moments on Monday, a small slice of Queens was bathed in Hindu ritual and pageantry courtesy of a frenetic collection of sights, sounds and an elephant named Minnie.

“You will never see anything like this again in your life,” one man said.

Shortly after 8 a.m., the view from inside a temple on the corner of Bowne Street and 45th Avenue in Flushing was more reminiscent of a bustling Indian city than a residential neighborhood in Flushing.

Conch shells and Shenais wailed over drums with reckless abandon. Incense, spices and flowers littered a floor packed with bare feet. A blur of saris and dhotis jockeyed for position around a serene elephant lurching forward through a crowded hall.

The reason for the frenzy was an ornate festival culminating five days of ritual at the Hindu Temple Society of North America’s Ganesh Temple. The event celebrated the “coming home” of Hindu deities Ganesha, Shiva and Shanmukha to their newly built shrines.

Located at 45-37 Bowne St., the Ganesh Temple is one of the largest traditional Hindu shrines in the country. During the last 18 months, extensive renovation and expansion have been completed at the building. The renovations included the installation of a new entrance lined with 16 hand-carved pillars depicting the various forms of the Hindu god Ganesha and the three rooftop towers crafted and imported from more than a dozen Indian artisans.

More than 1,000 people, some of whom flew in from India, packed the temple to watch as several Hindu saints led a live elephant around the building before ascending the roof to perform an elaborate rededication ceremony, known as maha kumbhabhishekam.

On the temple’s roof, men and women clasped their hands together as a Hindu priest chanted prayers atop one of three hand-carved towers draped with strands of red and yellow flowers.

As the priest completed his prayer, newly blessed water was poured over the towers and flower petals were tossed through the air to complete the ceremony.

“This is a divine experience,” said Reddy Gaddam, chairman of the Hindu Temple Society’s board of trustees. “They purified the water by chanting prayers. The water then has divine power and by pouring it over the towers that energy is transferred to the temple.”

In India, such an event is more commonplace, but for many in Flushing the event will be frozen in time.

For 26-year-old Suma Narasimharajan and her 22-year-old brother, Srini, the five-day ceremony was particularly special. Both of the Bayside residents were born in the United States and have practiced Hinduism their entire lives, but had never experienced such an event.

“Any religious festival is a unique experience, a learning experience. But this, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Suma said. “We grew up with this temple. We’ve both seen the temple grow from what was basically a little house and now it has a huge presence across the country.”

For the youngest attendees, the religious depth of the event may have been lost, but it was no less memorable.Wide-eyed children gleefully watched as the 37-year-old Indian elephant named Minnie was led through the temple’s front gate and around its perimeter.

Dozens of children crowded around the hulking elephant and had their pictures taken while they fed her apples or petted her thick hide.

“The elephant is so cool,” said 6-year-old Satesh Patel, grinning ear-to-ear. “He feels so weird.”

Manik Srinivasan, an Indian immigrant who traveled from Stony Brook, L.I., for the celebration, smiled as he watched the children stand in awe of Minnie.

“When I was a child in Mysore in southern India, every morning the elephants would be sent into the streets. The temples, they would own them, take care of them. People would feed them and as children we would get to ride them around,” Srinivasan said. “But I don’t think these children often see this sort of thing here.”

Todd Skakel, who lives nearby and watched the festivities with his 4-year-old son, Christopher, said he could not resist the allure of the unique event.

“I was reading the paper and I saw all these people leading an elephant into the temple,” Skakel said. “I know Chris had never seen one, and how often do you really ever see that in New York Cityi I just had to come check it out.”

Tom Graysing of G.A. Builders oversaw the majority of the construction and said the 18-month process with an eye-opening experience.

“They certainly do things differently, this group of people. You have to start work on certain days, it has to be done in a certain amount of time and everything has to be preceded by a ceremony. But I’ve never met a group of people more appreciative,” Graysing, a Roman Catholic, said. “You know what the amazing part is, thoughi The similarities between our religions. It’s different, but it’s all coming from the same place.”

Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at sstirling@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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