New York’s Jamaica Bay has become a sacred pilgrimage spot for Hindus in Queens.
Against the backdrop of jumbo jets lifting off the runways at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on a recent Sunday afternoon, Mukesh Sreeram, accompanied by his wife and children, lighted incense and immersed flowers, coconut and sweets into the waters of Jamaica Bay in Queens, N.Y.
A curious couple hesitatingly approached the family to inquire why they were pouring milk into the bay. “It is an offering to God,” Sreeram explained simply.
He comes to the beach most weekends for the ritual, usually with his family, Sreeram says, because “Water is the most important thing in life in our religion.”
So it is for the nearly 79,000 Guyanese immigrants who have settled in Richmond Hill, Elmhurst, Ozone Park, and other adjoining towns in Queens, the epicenter of the 265,000 strong Guyanese diaspora in the United States.
On Fridays and Sundays, especially during the summer and spring, scores of Hindu devotees descend on the beaches of Jamaica Bay’s North Channel Joseph P. Addabbo Bridge, as well as Ferry Point Park and Rockaways, from dawn to dusk to pray and cast offerings into the bay, which many liken to the sacred Indian river Ganges.
On a crisp Sunday morning in November, Pandit Sukhedo Maharaaj conducted an elaborate Ganapati Puja for a Guyanese family, chanting hymns around a haavan. Maharaaj, who migrated from Guyana 30 years ago, said he had been conducting religious services for families on the banks of Jamaica Bay for nearly 15 years. “People come for blessings here for Ganapati Puja, Ganga Puja, weddings, other religious events,” he explained.
He has performed similar water pujas for Hindu devotees all over New York and New Jersey, sometimes beside the ocean, rivers, ponds or family poolside or bathtubs. In March, Maharaaj, who is also a travel agent, is leading some 20 Guyanese Hindus on a pilgrimage to Indian holy sites, including the Ganges in Haridwar, Kanyakumari, the southern tip at the confluence of the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, and Meenakshi Temple, on the occasion of Phagwa, which is celebrated as Holi in India.
Radha Deochandi, a Guyanese immigrant, who has been conducting pujas on Jamaica Bay beaches since 2003, said, “We believe water is our mother; we worship her here,” waving to the spot where she had just lighted incense, poured milk and dropped a coconut into the waters of Jamaica Bay.
According to Chunelall Narine, priest at the Shri Trimurti Bhavan Temple in Ozone Park, one nearly 20 Guyanese Hindu temples in the area, Indian immigrants in Guyana have been performing these water rituals for nearly 150 years, ever since they were brought as indentured laborers by the British colonizers: “Scriptures tell us that Ganga has healing powers. People seek mother’s blessing for their problems and miraculously many are helped.”
In India and Guyana, Ganga Puja is usually performed around Kartika Purnima, considered one of the most sacred period of the year, which this year fell on Nov. 10. But Narine says, because often it is too cold during this time in New York, many Guyanese Hindus perform the water services during the summer. In Ganga Puja, the water becomes the idol, Narine says.
Maharaaj who is following in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps as a pandit, says he averages between 7 to 8 pujas every month during the spring and summer months. Besides Jamaica Bay, his Queens devotees perform their pujas on the East River under the Whitestone Bridge. But the North Channel Bridge beaches are by far the most popular spots with Guyanese Hindus, because of their proximity to Richmond Hills and Liberty Avenue, which meanders through several townships in the heart of Little Guyana and is flanked by scores of Guyanese restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses.
The water rituals seem to be far more popular among Guyanese Hindus than among Hindu immigrants from India, who outnumber the Guyanese both in New York as well as Queens County almost 2 to 1. Over three weekends in October and November, all 11 families observed by a reporter performing rituals at the beach were Guyanese.
While acknowledging that the religious services in Jamaica Bay were mostly performed by Guyanese and Caribbean Hindus, Narine rejected the suggestion that Hinduism evolved with a stronger accent on water rituals in Guyana because the country, whose national anthem extols the “land of many rivers,” is bounded in its heavily populated north by the Atlantic Ocean. “The fact that Guyana has so much water may be a motivation, but it is not the source,” he said. Because Hinduism varies vastly across India, the emphasis on the water rituals is rooted in the Bhojpuri and Vaishnav culture of Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from where most Indian indentured laborers in Guyana originated.
Narine asserts that the Guyanese Hindus are simply more traditional in their devotion than Indian Hindus: “Our foreparents preserved these traditions. In India things may have changed, been reduced or curtailed, but we preserved them unadulterated.” He points out that Guyanese wedding religious ceremonies are much more elaborate than Indian ones, which have devolved into pomp and partying instead. “In Richmond Hills you will find red Hanuman jhandas (flags) flying atop many homes. You don’t find them in India, but you have them all over Guyana.”
In recent years, the flotsam of coconuts, bamboo sticks, clay divyas, waterlogged saris, flags, statues, flowers, sweets, fruits and all manner of other ritual debris that washes ashore and litters the coastline from these Hindu ceremonies has raised environmental hackles and drawn the ire of the park service. Maria Cole, supervisory park ranger at the Gateway National Recreation Area, which includes Jamaica Bay, says while rangers are sensitive to the First Amendment religious rights of devotees “who have an absolute right to worship in the bay,” the ritual debris trapped in the enclosed waters is hazardous for the bay’s fragile habitat. The sweets and flowers are unhealthy and have even choked birds that descend upon the offerings, and sea vegetation can be strangled by entangled saris and cloth. Narine points out that in Guyana most people can afford just one yard of cloth, but in the United States the Guyanese immigrants are far more affluent and much more generous in their offerings, exacerbating the problem.
During the last two years park rangers have engaged community and religious leaders with the aim of discouraging Hindu devotees from leaving offerings in the bay while conducting their religious rituals. Occasionally rangers have imposed fines on devotees for littering. Many immigrants have reluctantly compromised, consenting to immerse their offerings in the water, but then bagging them in plastic for to dispose at home.
Dhanpaul Narine, a community activist and New York City school teacher, says Guyanese Indians need to “adjust and adapt tradition to local laws.” Indians in Guyana adopted local rivers as the Ganges and he fondly recalls that in 1947 his parents and grandparents offered prayers on the river on India’s independence. But, he has been horrified by images he has seen of horseshoe crabs tangled in sari strings, and as a result, “We have sensitized the Indian community in Queens about the risk and dangers involved in polluting.”
Occasionally, non-Hindu local residents pick up after the rituals, sometimes out of environmental concerns, at other times as prospectors scavenging for valuable, cast away silver coins and idols.
Presently, an uneasy standoff exists between devotees who insist their religious services, which include casting offerings into the water, are sacrosanct, and park rangers, who worry about the bay’s fragile ecosystem and periodically fining devotees for littering. Dhanpaul, who believes that Guyanese Hindus should modify their practices to comply with park regulations, acknowledges that “according to some priests the offering is not complete until it is taken away by the metaphorical Ganges.”
His brother Pandit Chunelall Narine is among those who disagrees: “It’s absurd. It’s like saying, ‘I have something to give to you. I brought this basket of fruits for you, but I can’t give it to you because of this law. I meant to offer it to you, but I have to take it away.’ What’s the point? It doesn’t make any sense.”
But the Narine brothers agree on the need to preserve the bay and its continued access for Hindu religious services. Together they have participated in community campaigns with the park rangers to clean up the beaches, most recently during last year’s Earth Day. “For Hindus cleanliness is next to Godliness,” Chunelall Narine says. “For us river is God, tulsi, peepul is God, a mountain is God. There is no sanctity of garbage in the water.” Foil, plastic plates and non-biodegradable material didn’t exist when these rituals were established and are not sanctioned by religion. But, he insists, there is no prohibition against putting puri, halwa, or fruit into the water, “Biodegradable stuff does not pollute.”
He said the park service has accommodated their religious services for many years. The rituals involve just token prasad being cast into the water and only coconut water is poured out; the rest of the offering is given to people to eat as prasad, he says, “I have given prasad to rangers, who took it without a problem.”
According to Narine, park rangers began cracking down on devotees two years ago, after a few isolated incidents of animal sacrifice and a bird that choked on some flowers. “That is terrible, but millions of cows are slaughtered in this country every year. I know that is their way, but if you are conscientious, you should protect all animals, not favor some and destroy others. All species are sacred to us,” Narine said. Park officials readily acknowledged that kite strings and fishing twine likely pose a greater hazard to marine life in the bay than religious rituals do.
Doug Adamo, chief of the natural resource management division at the Gateway National Recreation Area, said while his agency had never conducted an assessment of the volume of materials deposited into the park during religious rituals, it was a “relatively small problem in comparison to the other contaminants in the bay.”
From a biological standpoint, Adamo said, a far larger problem is posed by the sediments dumped into the bay in the 1960s and 1970s by industrial plants, the hardening of the coastline as a result of development, past dredging, and industrial and household chemicals, especially cleaning fluids, not all of which are fully treated before they are dumped into the bay.
Comparatively, Adamo said, “Religious rituals fall way down the list,” although he hastened to add that the debris that washes ashore poses aesthetic concerns and a problem for park rangers who have to maintain the beach. “They may have a different take on the problem.”
And they do.
Pandit Narine says several devotees have been penalized by park rangers, including one who was fined $500, and as a result “people are scared, some perform the rituals secretly or try not be seen.” Indeed, many devotees performing services on the bay were reluctant to be photographed or quoted for this story.
But Narine is defiant: “We must preserve our rituals. You can’t stop us.”
Breaking the Stalemate
The debris from Hindu rituals that washes ashore on the beaches of Jamaica Bay has resulted in an uneasy standoff between devotees and park officials tasked with maintaining the Gateway Area National Park.
Public advocacy by park rangers at religious events has sensitized the community and as a result many Hindus, however reluctantly, immerse the offerings in the waters, then bag it in compliance with the park’s “leave no trace” policy. Still many immigrants, either because they are unfamiliar with the rules or because they believe the ritual is incomplete without casting the offerings into the waters, continue to deposit saris, coconuts, fruits, etc. into the bay, much of which is washed ashore and litters the coastline.
Over the years, various proposals have been floated to minimize the consequential environmental hazards, notably:
• New York City designate an area, possibly in Staten Island, which flows into the ocean where these rituals can be conducted;
• Regular public advocacy campaigns by park rangers within the community to discourage or atleast minimize the offerings being cast into the waters;
• Religious discourses within the community to examine the religious traditions. The rituals differ among various community members and while some are more willing to adapt their practices to comply with local laws, others insist an offering is incomplete unless it is cast into the water. But there is wide room even among the latter on which and how much of the offering needs to be released into the water.
• Increasing the frequency and better coordination of cleanups campaigns by park rangers and community members. Presently the cleanups occur once a year on Earth Day in April, while the offerings peak around Karthik Purnima, Navratri and Durga Puja, which typically fall in November.
• Raising private funds for regular clean-ups, especially around North Channel Bridge beaches, where Hindu religious services are most commonly performed and where most ritual debris washes ashore.
Indians, who were brought to Guyana as indentured laborers by the British between 1838 to 1917, are the dominant population group in Guyana and have held the presidency continuously since 1992, first under Cheddi Jagan, then Bharrat Jagdeo and currently Donald Ramotar. In recent years, Guyana has witnessed massive emigration to the United States, Canada and the United KIngdom.
Indeed, according to Dhanpaul Narine, a community activist and a New York City public school teacher, an estimated 1 million Guyanese live abroad, larger than Guyana’s resident population of 750,000.
In the United States, the Guyanese Indian population is heavily concentrated in Queens, New York. Nearly 60 percent of the 258,921 Guyanese in the United States live in New York and of them, almost half in Queens, according to the 2010 American Community Survey.
Narine says Guyanese Indians have tended to concentrate in New York, especially Queens, and New Jersey, while Guyanese Africans have favored Brooklyn, Bronx and Florida. The township of Richmond Hill and scores of blocks along Liberty Avenue are known as Little Guyana and the annual Pagwa celebration on the street attracts 100,000 people and is “considered the single biggest street festival in Queens,” according to Narine.