From a back room, a priest emerges. He is wrapped fully in a white robe with red lines around the linen edges. Across his forehead can faintly be seen three white lines; this religious forehead mark delineates his adherence to the Śaiva sect of Hinduism. The priest walks with a bit of a hunch, arms straining at his load. His hands carry a large silver bucket with a long handle; a piece of crinkled aluminum foil loosely covers the top. In the crowd of worshippers sitting in front of the statue, a father prods his inattentive son, gesturing to the bucket excitedly. The boy immediately perks up.

A second priest emerges from the sheltered altar place to receive the bucket, nodding his thanks before pulling off the foil. With the practiced ease of one who has done something thousands of times, he pours the liquid into the smaller, slightly dented vessel. The substance is thick and white and pours out unevenly – some large chunks are mixed inside of the liquid. It is thinned yogurt – a particularly auspicious gift to the gods.

The priest lifts the vessel, and its contents begin to dribble over the elephant head of Lord Ganesha. The process is repeated on the left side, where the deity’s hand clutches a large conch shell, and then on the right, where a stylized axe rests partially across Ganesh’s massive knee. Slowly, the large black granite statue becomes entirely covered, turning Ganesh pure white as the yogurt oozes down him. At this, the devotees gasp and press their palms together. In this moment, Hindus believe the deity is transformed. Suddenly, Ganesh’s features seem more expressive, the objects in his hands pop, and the whole of his being stands out against the matte gray backdrop of the altar.

This ritual is part of The Hindu Temple Society of North America’s weekly service at 45 Bowne Street in Flushing, New York. This service is in honor of Lord Ganesha, who Hindus believe is the son of two other gods, Shiva and Parvati. At 11:00 a.m. on Sundays, devotees, some wearing traditional saris and dhotis, others wearing Western fashion – though all with bare feet – stream into the temple’s large center room and prostrate themselves in front of the center altar. The puja is about to begin, in which Ganesh, the temple’s patron deity, will be worshipped for nearly an hour in a number of rituals, including the washing of the deity with a series of liquids.

  1. Padmanabhan, the temple’s public relations officer, says the purpose of the washing is not only to clean the deity, but also to present it with substances that are particularly sacred in order that the devotees present will receive the pleased god’s blessing.

“Milk, yogurt, honey, fruit juice, coconut water…” Padmanabhan recites reverentially, ticking them off on his fingers, “these are holy things. We give them to the gods because they like it.” He goes on to describe the blessings that each of the gods and goddesses would bestow upon the devotee once they are presented with these gifts. When Ganesh is worshipped, for instance, Hindus believe that he removes the obstacles standing in the devotee’s way – whatever they may be.

Following the washing of the deity with yogurt, the priest leading the service begins running his palm over the deity, rubbing away the whiteness from Ganesha’s trunk, from the crevices of his knees and arms, from his objects and toes, from the scrolled levels of statuary that he sits upon. With quick flicks of the priest’s wrist, the yogurt falls away to the floor. This step has not been undertaken with the other sacred liquids used, and is perhaps done because this will be the thickest substance used to wash Ganesh during the service.

Once a satisfactory amount of the yogurt has been whisked away, the priest once again grasps the smaller silver vessel. This time, it will be used for water instead of yogurt. Quick, expert scooping motions rinse the vessel of the remaining liquid, and then quickly fill it with clean water from a huge tub near the altar. As with the yogurt, the water is poured first over the deity’s head, then his sides. The yogurt hides in some places, but soon Ganesh sits clean and listening and, in the eyes of the devotees, newly consecrated.