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In Praise of Sri Venkateswara

Evening prayer brings together devotees and their offerings
By Jennifer Lai, June 19, 2007
Image: hindu prayer
Hindu devotees offer prayers during Shivratri festival at a temple in Trakeshawar, about 75 km (46 miles) west of Calcutta, India, Friday, Feb. 16, 2007. (AP Photo/Sucheta Das)

QUEENS–In a small room up three marble steps from the main floor of the Ganesh Temple, stands the dark-faced Sri Venkateswara, his armor obscured by garlands of white, yellow and red. He is adorned with a silver crown, on top of which rests a yellow chrysanthemum. His chest is bedecked with gold jewelry embedded with red and green rubies. Five steel bowls of water are placed on a tray by his side as offerings to the thirsty deity.

“Entry For Priests Only,” reads a sign at the foot of the entrance to the room. Inside, a priest sits on the floor before Venkateswara and chants the Sahasranama, a collection of Sanskrit verses, which contain the 1,000 names of God. With each verse, the priest pinches a grain of rice from a silver bowl and tosses it at the feet of the deity, each grain an offering.

Venkateswara, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu worshipped in southern India, is one of several deities receiving attention from the supplicants amassed for evening pooja (worship) at this Hindu temple on 45-57 Bowne St. in Flushing, Queens. He is praised with the Sahasranama every Saturday at 6 p.m. amid singing, the ringing of bells and incense that suffuses the air in honor of all the deities.

Near the entrance of the temple is a small information booth. Here, streams of worshippers pay $11 - major credit cards accepted - and in return, they receive a green plastic bag containing two apples and a 1 1/2 ounce box of Sun-Maid Raisins. Weaving through sitting worshippers praising Ganesh on a purple carpet, the purchasers make their way to Sri Venkateswara.

As the priest continues reciting the 1,000 names, another priest wearing a purple shawl, jeweled earrings and his long black hair tied back in a bun, accepts the green bags from the worshippers in preparation for archana, a short prayer recited by Hindu priests on behalf of devotees, with the purpose of invoking the God’s blessings.

“Your name? Birth star? Family name?” the priest asks them.

As the worshippers whisper the answers to the priest, he repeats the information loudly so that Venkateswara may hear. The priest then climbs the three steps to the room where the deity stands amid a pile of accumulated rice and recites the prayer, a recital of 108 names of God. As he chants, he adjusts the garlands on the deity the way one would fix a lover’s collar. Next, he pinches a few chrysanthemums and places them in the bag along with a tiny spoonful of water from the bowls that lay at the God’s feet.

After finishing the prayer, he rings a large bell, then picks up a golden torch and wafts the flame before Venkateswara in a clockwise motion. Walking down the steps from the room, he next offers the flame to the worshippers. They wave their open hands through the fire and then touch their faces, receiving the burning blessing from the deity. The plastic bag is returned to its buyers, the fruit inside now an offering from the God to be consumed later.

The final offering to the faithful is gold-colored water, imbued with saffron and camphor. The priest places a spoonful from a bowl in their opened palms. The devotees put their hands to their mouths and the water disappears with a slurp.

“He’s the supreme,” says one of Venkateswara’s devotees, who sits on the carpet watching the ritual. “He’s the only Lord.”

This Glimpse of Faith was filed by News21 Fellow James Angelos

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