Hindu rituals and environmental concerns clash at Jamaica Bay

By CLAUDIA BRACHOLDT & MADHURA KARNIK

Richard Prasad knelt bare-footed in the grey sand on the beach. It was a Sunday morning. Prasad, 46, and his friend had been trying to light two candles that were sitting in two small clay bowls. Prasad held two gold-colored plates in his hands, trying to block the wind coming in from the water. He wore a red cotton robe over his turned up jeans. His friend managed to light a match. Both held their hands over the bowls, until finally, the flame lit up.

The two Hindus picked up the candles and let them gently into the water. They stood at the shore in silence, facing the water solemnly and started to pray.

A photo of the Hindu God Shiv, lies on the rocks at Jamaica Bay. Photo by Claudia Bracholdt.

Scenes like this can be regularly witnessed in India or even in some parts of the Caribbean Islands with their large Hindu population. However, Prasad and his friend were at Jamaica Bay in Queens.

Prasad is a part of the Caribbean-Hindu community of Queens, which uses the bay as a place for worship. The water of the bay is perceived as a form of God, to which the people offer food, flowers, coins and sometimes cloths. The offerings are supposed to be washed away to the Atlantic Ocean, which is connected to the Indian River Ganges via the Indian Ocean. But because of the tide in New York harbor, the offerings end up on the shore again. In the past few years, the National Park Service and some environmental watchdog groups have raised concerns about the protection of Jamaica Bay’s environment.

“The problem is that many of the things that Hindus leave are not bio-degradable,” said Dan Riepe. Riepe is part of the Jamaica Bay Research and Management Information Network, an environmental watchdog group that patrols the Bay regularly.

Riepe said although Hindu rituals affect the environment, the pollution of the bay water plays a minor role in the conflict.

“It’s not a main water quality issue,” Riepe said. “It’s more of an aesthetic conflict.”

Along the beach, remains from the rituals lie in the sand: Coconuts, cloths, flowers and broken miniature statues of Hindu Goddesses.

Riepe said these leftovers would cause people to not be able to enjoy the beach as much as they would like to. He said some might even avoid the beach because it looks dirty.

Colleen Sorbera who is a Park Ranger at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge said that there is evidence of environmental damage due to the offerings to the water.

“The nutrients from the fruits causes eutrophication which results in algae blooms that decreases the oxygen level of the water which is harmful for the fish,” Sorbera said.

She said that some ducks appear to have developed deformities such as ‘angel wings’, wings that seem to be crooked, because the birds eat the food lying on the shore, which they are not supposed to eat. The deformity is caused due to a high-calorie diet among birds.

For several years in the past, the park rangers have visited temples throughout Queens to educate Hindus about rules for protecting the beach, including cleaning the beach after their rituals and also obtaining a license for performing more elaborate rituals. But not everyone in the community follows these guidelines.

Sorbera says that they have been getting different responses from the community. She said that although the community is actively participating to keep the bay clean there should be more participation in the future.

“A lot of the community leaders have supported us, but not all,” she said.

She said on occasions some people performing rituals try to circumvent the regulations by waiting until they think the ranger has left, and then continuing with leaving the ritual offerings in the water.

Prasad said he respects the work of the park rangers and the bay’s environment. He said he comes to the bay often and collects the paper plates from the water every time he offers something.

In Guyana, his hometown, people generally leave the waste from their rituals on the beach rather than properly discarding them, he says.

“Back in the Caribbean, Trinidad or Guyana, you know we are just used to go into the ocean or the river,” Prasad said. “We worship there and just leave everything there, just banked up on the side.”

Around 79,000 people of Caribbean origin live in Queens, according to the American Community Survey of 2010, a part of the US Census survey. This is around four percent of the total population in Queens. Most of these are Hindus whose ancestors migrated from the Northern parts of India to the Caribbean Islands in the late 1800s and the early 1900s. The younger generations of these families have now settled in the United States.

On April 22nd, the National Park Service organized the annual cleanup day at the bay. Volunteers picked up 108 large white plastic bags full of leftovers from rituals and a small amount of other garbage. Around 60 members from the Hindu community participated in the clean up drive.

Besides the clean-up day, the rangers from the Park Service try to reach out to the Queens Hindu community via a program that includes conversations between rangers and temple representatives to increase environmental awareness within the community. The National Park Service has also hired a Hindu intern this summer, whose main task will be to improve the relations between both sides and achieve a better understanding.

Sorbera said the Hindu religion is very complex and that she doesn’t know enough about it. She hopes that the new summer intern will help the park rangers with the outreach.

“She (the intern) can inform our staff about issues and customs important to the Hindu community, while at the same time increasing the effectiveness of how we communicate the message of ‘Leave No Trace’ at the bridge,” Sorbera said. ” ‘Leave No Trace’ is a slogan meaning what you take into the park with you, you take out, and dispose of.”

Sahadeo Shivshankar often visits the bay to pray and perform rituals. Shivshankar, a grey-haired man in his sixties came to New York from Guyana seven years ago. He said he doesn’t like people leaving things at the beach that harm the environment. His offering included fruits and flowers, lying in aluminum foil in his hands when he stood in the water and prayed.

For some non-Hindus these offerings don’t have any religious significance. They collect them for personal use. On a recent Sunday, Edward Singer strolled in the flat water up and down the beach, his eyes fixed on the ground. Singer comes to the bay regularly to collect coins. He was holding a brown rake behind his back, searching for coins that are used as religious offerings along with flowers and fruits that often end up on the shore.

When Shivshankar and a few other Hindus at the beach finished their prayers, they left food and other offerings in the water. Quickly, geese and seagulls began to gather along the shore, fighting over the food. Behind them, Edward Singer started dipping his rake into the water.

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