Nfld. & Labrador

An ancient tradition has happened at Middle Cove for decades. And hardly anyone knows about it

For decades, the Hindu community in St. John's has gathered at a nearby beach for a unique spectacle, as well as an ancient tradition that unites people around the world, writes Prajwala Dixit.

For decades, the St. John's Hindu community has gathered at Middle Cove for a unique celebration

Members of the Hindu community in St. John's take clay idols of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, into the water off Middle Cove beach. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

For nearly 50 years, perhaps longer, the beach at Middle Cove has witnessed a unique spectacle. Hindu Newfoundlanders have carried out a millennium-old practice that involves taking a summer polar bear dip with a clay idol of Ganesha.

At the end of every summer, Saraswathy Katna has been making the idols of Ganesha, the single-tusked, elephant-headed Hindu god for a special festival called Ganesha Chaturthi.

On the fourth day of the waxing moon cycle, in the sixth month of the Hindu calendar called Bhadrapada (which fell on Sept. 2 this year), Ganesha is said to visit the homes of his devout followers.

Known to be the remover of obstacles, Hindus honour this humanoid form for as long as 10 days by making handmade idols of the Ganesha, treating him to delectable foods, singing songs in his praise, and visiting each other's homes.

The 10-day festivity marks a time of joy and celebration within the Hindu diaspora — and Newfoundland and Labrador is no exception. Since the 1970s, perhaps even earlier, Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations have been in full swing here.

'I feel like they're my extended family'

Katna only started making the idols when she moved to St. John's in the 1980s, because she did not have an alternative.

Sarswathy Katna watches the Hindu community in St. John's offer prayers to the idol she made. (Prajwala Dixit)

"I never made it back home because we used to buy it in the shops. Here we cannot. So, I thought I can try my best," she said.

"I want my children to keep our culture.… I first started [making the idol] with Play-Doh because I don't know whether we can get that clay here or not."

She now makes them not only for her home but also for the St. John's Hindu Temple and the larger community.

"Whoever comes here, the younger families, I feel they're like my extended family, like my sons or daughters … so I started giving them [idols too]," she said.

Apart from being religious, this historic tradition at one point became central to the freedom movement in India. Nationalist and freedom fighter Lokamanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak is credited with turning this private household tradition into the large-scale carnival seen today, using the occasion to unite Indians against the British Raj.

Celebrating with colours

The festivities in many countries now last as long as 10 days, and the idol attracts a communal celebration.

Seshu Adluri, who teaches structural engineering at Memorial University, carries out the rites and rituals associated with the festival on behalf of the local Hindu community.

"In India, Hinduism celebrates the divine in many, many different ways, in many forms, on many different occasions," Adluri said. On Ganesh Chaturthi, God is worshipped in a form called Ganesha.

Katna prepares two types of idols: one from clay for the temple, seen in the forefront, and the other from mud to distribute to the community, seen in the background. (Prajwala Dixit)

"Every home makes this clay idol. It doesn't have to be perfect.… Once you make it, you invoke the Lord into that form. That invocation is your belief [so that] you should treat God as an honoured guest."

Prayers are accompanied by offerings for things that include flowers, incense, light and food.

Aside from making their own idols, children — like Vaishnavi Devaraballi, 11 — have another reason for partaking in these celebrations.

"[Ganesha] normally removes all the obstacles in our life. And he's one of the gods of education. So, if us kids do it, we'll get a good education. So, it's a good thing we're doing it before the school year so I can get a good education this school year," she said.

Yatish Aggarwal, 9, who celebrated his first Ganesh Chaturthi here in N.L., has vivid memories of the festival in India.

The statue is "fed" modakas — sweet dumplings — inside the home for a week, he said.

"After seven days, we take him to a lake or a bigger river. We celebrate with colours and stuff and crackers. We leave him in water," he said.

An ecofriendly celebration

This is exactly what happens to these ecofriendly clay or mud idols, even in St. John's. Travelling from Saraswathy's home to the Hindu temple, the idol is finally immersed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Across the globe for Ganesh Chaturthi this year, idols are immersed in water bodies on Sept. 12.

Sarswathy Katna and Dr. Adluri perform aarti — a ritual of worship — to Ganesha, and Krishna, the main deity that occupies the Hindu Temple in St. John's. (Prajwala Dixit)

However, to accommodate work and school schedules, the local community invoked and immersed the idol on the opening day of the festivity.

"[It is] difficult to do. That's how it is," said Adluri. "Here it is not easy to do. It is difficult but we do the best we can."

Prajwala Dixit has frequently written about immigrant communities in N.L. Read more of her articles here

When the idols are brought to Middle Cove, Adluri says, the symbolism in the ritual is rich.

"One more time we do a brief worship.… We take the Lord with the flowers and release it into the ocean," he said.

"The ocean is considered to be the amalgamation of the sacred rivers in the world. The symbolism is it doesn't matter how you worship, what you worship.… Eventually, all of the prayers go to the same divine entity."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

About the Author

Prajwala Dixit

Contributor

Prajwala Dixit is an Indian-Canadian writer. An engineer, wife and mother, she resides in St. John's.