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Hindus volunteer to clean up religious offerings from Jamaica Bay area

By Rachel Garrett and Nina Golgowski, CNN
  • Conservationists, park rangers concerned about water pollution
  • Hindus say it's religious tradition to bring items to bodies of water
  • Cloth will be recycled, volunteer says

New York (CNN) -- Volunteers toiled for hours on Friday cleaning mostly man-made debris from a New York coastline, the scattered religious offerings from a growing Hindu population in Queens.

The group has drawn concern among local conservationists after leaving offerings -- clothing, statues, plastic flowers and other items -- along the Gateway National Recreation Area near Jamaica Bay.

"I was appalled to see the condition of the place," said New Yorker Nagassar Ramgarib, a practicing Hindu. "It was really disgustingly filthy."

Many defend the practice, considered a sacred Hindu tradition. Millions of worshippers leave offerings to the gods at India's Ganges river each year.

"There are times when we feel that we need to come to the sea, to offer flowers and of course ... material things because we feel that flowers, they just go," said Esther J. Ramdeen, a spokeswoman for the East Elmhurst temple, Shiva Mandir, who helped organize Friday's clean-up. "We see God in the sea," she said.

What remains is a standoff between those who insist on practicing their beliefs unfettered and environmentalists who are trying to preserve the area for local marine life.

Affected by the buildup and inspired by a park ranger who helped remove debris with him several years earlier, Ramgarib returned to his temple to encourage executives and its members to visit the park and see the destruction.

"It is the sea. It is something that we as Hindus worship," he told them, "It is the medium that we use from this life to the after-life."

Ramgarib warned that if the area was continually polluted, his people could be banned.

Kathy Krause, a supervisory park ranger of the Gateway National Recreation Area who attended the clean-up, agrees the religious practices have put definite pressure on the bay.

"It's a rich biodiverse ecosystem but it's definitively suffering some major environmental issues," Krause said.

These extra items left on the bay are one of its biggest threats for Jamaica Bay, a national park that's home to more than 325 species of birds, invertebrates and sea life, Krause said.

"They release nutrients into the bay that don't belong there, and it exacerbates the water pollution problem we have," she said.

Volunteers picking under rocks and through grass Friday filled garbage bags of bottles, coconut shells, figurines and yards of cloth, all of which the group says they will try to recycle.

Ramdeen said the fabric, pulled and sometimes ripped from beneath the shoreline, is just another part of the material possessions offered to the gods.

"You see that the colors we're picking up are very pretty colors," she said "and we as Hindus think that we should give God the best."

The material collected by Ramdeen's organization is washed before being sent back to India as clothing.

"So it was kind of a recycling process," she said of their efforts.

"It's amazing," Krause said of the group's efforts. "This just shows such wonderful turnout from the local community."