His eyes closed, a Hindu priest sings Sanskrit mantras praising Ganesh, the elephant-headed god that The Hindu Temple Society of North America worships above all others. Through the approximately hour-long service at the Temple, at 45 Bowne Street in Flushing, New York, the chanting never ends and only the occasional verse is repeated.

In the crowd of approximately 50 devotees, several sing along, rhythmically matching the rising and soaring melodies that accompany the hymns. Many, however, simply watch and listen as the priests conduct the rituals.

Two small children run back and forth outside of the tight crowd of worshippers, dashing in front of the many smaller statues lining the temple. These statues represent gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, resplendent in their tiny gowns and garlands. The children stand out in the temple, not only because of their lack of concentration on the service, but also due to their age. Most present for the Ganesh puja are middle aged or elderly. The children laugh and play tag until their father – who has been sitting silently through the puja – rises from the crowd and corrals them back to the group as the service begins to reach a conclusion. The smaller child, a boy, drapes himself limply across his father’s lap, protesting his boredom at the proceedings.

Then, a small silver bell in the hand of the main priest begins to ring. The priest holds aloft a silver lamp, burning with a tiny flame started with sesame oil, and passes it in front of Ganesh three times. The priest then turns and holds up the flame to the congregation. As one, the group holds their open palms to the flame and ceremoniously touches their eyelids, ritually symbolizing receiving a blessing from the god. As one, that is, except the small boy.

As the devotees reached for their blessing, the father held his son’s tiny hands in his own, raising them up for him. “Now touch your eyes,” the man instructed. The boy looked to his sister for guidance. Clearly a practiced worshipper, she demonstrated by rubbing her small fists to her face. The boy carefully copied the gesture. “Is that right?” his high voice asked, rising above the muted intonations of the crowd. His sister and father both nodded.

When the time comes again, the entire family is ready. This time, the receiving of the smoke is preempted by the worshippers tapping their temples or foreheads – an action thought to awaken the mind to the god’s presence. The children are clearly both familiar with this ritual action: both rap on their heads, out of sync with the congregation, and laugh at each other. The lamp is then raised aloft, and as the congregation’s hands rise to the altar, the boy’s hands are among them, unaided by anyone. His eyes, however, are on his sister. As her hands travel back to her eyes, receiving the blessing, so do his.

A triumphant grin covers the boy’s face at the correct, individual completion of this ritual portion. The father, his lap long since vacated, squeezes the boy’s shoulders with both hands, gently shaking the small body. The siblings touch their shoulders together and the girl pets her brother lightly on the head. Though the service only lasts for a few more minutes, the aarti ritual – where the lamp is waved first to the deity then the congregation – is repeated several more times. The boy’s gestures become more confident each time; it isn’t long before he doesn’t look at his sister at all when the bell begins to ring. His eyes are soon firmly fixed on the priest in front of the altar and the statue of Ganesh. His smile, though, continues to grow.