Dot's Hindus celebrate Nine Nights

Hindus from across New England gather to celebrate Navratri or Nine Nights, at Dorchester's Ganesh Temple near Codman Square. Photo by Bijoyeta Das.

Dollops of ghee or clarified butter are poured through bay leaves into a square metal fire pot, surrounded by fragrant incense sticks and earthen lamps. As the priest recites Sanskrit hymns, the smoke alarm goes off. The devotees, nonchalant to the piercing sound of the alarm, sit cross-legged with bowed heads-their chanting grows louder and bells ring faster.

Early on Sunday morning, the immigrant Hindu community from Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname is celebrating Navratri or Nine Nights that glorifies the victory of warrior goddess Durga over the buffalo demon, symbolizing triumph of good over evil. Primarily of Indian descent, most of them have never visited India. But the devotees, who have been abstaining from salt and non-vegetarian food, crowd at the Ganesh Temple in Dorchester to celebrate their cultural and religious heritage.

"We could never forget our customs," says Deo Mahadeo, director of Ganesh Temple committee. "Religion gives us something to hold on to."

The white two-story house on 48 Edson Street looks like any suburban house. But it is named in honor of Ganesh, the elephant-headed deity riding a mouse, who is the patron of wisdom and wealth.

Before entering the temple, devotees take off their shoes and place them neatly on the porch. A white-tiled platform on the right of the carpeted main hall is used for rituals. The three rooms upstairs are used during feasts to serve food. Over a dozen idols dressed in costumes spun out of silk and golden threads, and adorned with jewels are lined up on a raised platform. Portraits of Hindu gods, garlanded with bright artificial flowers hang on the walls. Dried bay leaves, and patterns carved out of red and yellow satin cloth and flowers are tied to the ceiling.

A Tulsi or Holy basil plant in a pot is positioned among fruits such as apples, bananas, oranges, grapes and sweets made of flour and wheat that are offered to the gods. Flowers such as Marigold, daisies and dollar bills are placed together in a plate.

Pandit Dubey Maharaj, the chief priest, is sitting around the sacred fire along with six other devotees and leading the prayers. A supervising engineer at Harvard University, he is dressed in a white robe, red silk scarf and Rudraksha, a beaded necklace.

"We should not forget the rituals of our forefathers. We should use the knowledge to show our devotion to Durga Ma," says Pandit Dubey. "Please fold your hands and sing in praise of Tulsi," he says into a microphone pinned to his long tunic. His announcements in Hindi are followed with detailed instructions in English.

"We are here to celebrate the feminine aspect of God. The first three days is for Durga, next Lakhsmi goddess of wealth, and the last three days for Saraswati, goddess of learning," he says.

Goddess Durga was created at a time of divine crisis, when a buffalo demon king, Mahisashur, terrorized the Earth.

"Mother Earth could not tolerate the havoc caused by the demon king, Mahisashur, so she complained to Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver and Shiva, the destroyer," Pandit Dubey says.

Durga, symbolizing Shakti or power, was created out of the radiance of the gods, who formed parts of her body and gave her weapons, he says. The ten-armed goddess dressed in red, holding a trident, and riding a lion fought the demons for nine nights and destroyed the demon.

Pandit Dubey blows into a white Conch. Men and women sing prayer songs in Hindi and Sanskrit. Clapping their hands, they take turns playing Indian musical instruments--dholak, a hand drum; harmonium, a free standing keyboard instrument, producing sound similar to that of an accordion. A teenage boy plays the manjira, a pair of small hand cymbals. Reynold Balgobin, sitting to the right of the dais, periodically rings a bell.

"This is the only place we can come to worship," says Balgobin, who lives in Hyde Park. "There is a small corner in my house to pray, but I like coming here once a month."

After years of worship in private homes, the growing immigrant Hindu community wanted to establish a permanent religious center. In 1989, the temple was set up in a garage on Dorchester Avenue. In 1992, the Edson street house was established as a Hindu temple, the first of its kind in Boston.

"This temple is built for the people. Both Hindus and non-Hindus are welcome," says Deo Mahadeo, director of the Ganesh Temple. "It is owned by all members. We contribute to pay the mortgage, the utilities and for the ceremonies."

It serves as the religious center for about 200 members, scattered in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Most of them immigrated from Trinidad Tobago and Guyana over the last 50 years. They are descendants of Indian communities who migrated into the Caribbean in the mid-18th century.

"This religious and cultural gathering is an opportunity to meet people," says Doris Argbjoon who came to the United States 32 years ago from Trinidad and Tobago. "I am also Catholic, and take part in all Christian religious festivals."

"I do not mind driving an hour to come from Rhode Island," says Michelle Singh, who has been coming regularly for the last 10 years. "I heard about the temple through word of mouth, and since then I come every month and for all major festivals."

As the three-hour ceremony comes to a close, a plate with four lamps is passed around. The devotees pass their fingers through the flame and then touch their bowed foreheads. A young boy goes around the room drawing tilak, a mark with sandalwood paste on the forehead. Another goes around spraying a perfume on everyone's left hand.

"How fortunate we are that we have a chance to get together and show our respect to our religion," Pandit Dubey says. According to Hindu traditions, Brahmins, the upper caste, conduct religious rituals, so Krishen Mahajan, the son of Pandit Dubey Maharaj, is training to become a priest.

"It has been in the family for generations," says Mahajan, 27, network engineer at the Dedham-based RNK Communications. "I am reading the Ramayan, learning Hindi, and learning the prayers and customs by listening to my father."

To ensure that the younger generation of Hindus continue to revere their religious roots they are trained in Indian music and languages, says Susan Bachan, who came from Guyana. "After all, worshipping God is adding more to your karma."