Melbourne’s spectacular granite temple hosts chariot festival

By Indira Laisram
Youth Group members carrying Ganesha

As Melbourne’s Sri Vakrathunda Vinayagar Temple in The Basin enters its milestone 30th anniversary this year and having set its own history of housing the largest granite shrines in the southern hemisphere, there is more excitement in store for patrons, devotees and the wider community.

From April 15 to 24th, the temple will be celebrating its much-loved annual chariot festival, which falls on the ninth day of the Mahotsavam. Coming after a two-year Covid hiatus, this grand festival, considered as the culmination of the entire year’s worship at the temple, has a lot in store this year with pooja rituals, traditional songs and free food among its other attractions.

“The Mahotsavam itself is an annual festival where a flag is hoisted on the flagpole in the temple on the first day. The flag raising is to symbolically show to the world how a soul would reach Mukti (emancipation, enlightenment or liberation),” explains, Shan Pillai, President of the temple.

Explaining the significance of the ceremony, Pillai says, “The flagpole is the symbol for Pathi (God), the flag itself is considered the soul (pasu). There are two ropes which take the flag up. One is made of cotton coloured in turmeric, which depicts the power of God and His blessings, and the other is made of Dharba Grass (denoting the bonds of the soul with the physical world and which drags the soul down). So, the ceremony itself is about lifting the soul to reach Mukti and be one with God.”

All throughout the 10-day festival, which begins on April 15, the deity of Lord Ganesha will be decorated differently each day and various functions performed. On the ninth day, the deity will be placed on the chariot that will be drawn by devotees.

“On this day, it is said that God visits the houses of devotees to bless them. Hence the chariot festival is indeed the single largest festival day in the temple calendar. On the final tenth day, the deity will take a “bath” in the water tank outside, and finally the flag will be lowered,” says Pillai.

The Sri Vakrathunda Vinayagar Temple celebrated its first Mahotsavam in April 2008 after the flagpole was constructed during the 2007 Kumbabhishekam (consecration). This year marks the 14th year of the celebrations.

In 2008, the temple constructed a chariot locally and used an old car without engines to be the “chariot”. In 2013, a new chariot was built in Sri Lanka and brought to Melbourne. This chariot was built in the traditional way and a shed was also constructed to house the special chariot.

“We were the first temple in Victoria to celebrate this festival,” says Pillai with pride.

A great deal of planning goes into the 10-day festival and devotees sponsor the events. Before the Mahotsavam, volunteers help to clean the temple, wash the various areas, mow the grass, mop the floors, etc.. At any one time up to 100 different volunteers are involved in this entire process.

As the poojas are performed both in the mornings and evenings, everybody right from volunteers to the priests work very hard with the daily rituals of Homam, Abhishegam and perambulation of the deity.

The temple also provides free food at both times, lunch and dinner. “The volunteers also help in setting up for the rituals and clean-up afterwards. Cooks and cleaners too work extra hard to ensure the thousands who visit are properly fed.”

Devotees can participate by sponsoring the various poojas. “Usually, when a devotee sponsors a particular pooja day, he does this for “life”, it will be considered his pooja. There are many poojas that have already been sponsored. Only a handful remain. Devotees can participate by sponsoring the poojas. Sponsorship cost range from $125 to $5,000,” says Pillai.

After two years of Covid hiatus, the temple is looking forward to the grand Mahotsavam and extends an invitation to everyone to partake in this meaningful, colourful and joyous festival.

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