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© Neena Bhandari, Indo Asian News Service

Sydney, Sep 17 (IANS) An idol of Hindu god Ganesh, decorated in all finery, sat firm as thousands of devotees followed in a procession chanting "Ganpati Bappa Morya" to Stanwell Park beach here, as part of colourful celebrations for the Ganesh festival.

The elephant-headed god was immersed in the Pacific Ocean to the sounds of beating drums and chants Sunday as waves on low tide lashed the sandy beach, about 50 km south of Sydney's central business district.

The three-feet-tall idol was made of biodegradable material. "We were very conscious to use only environmental friendly material like clay and papier mache," said Murali Dharan, president of the Sri Venkateswara Temple committee that organises the annual Ganesh festival.

"Ganesh is universally worshipped by all Hindus. Besides people from the sub-continent, we have Hindus from Bali, Thailand, Nepal, Singapore, Malaysia, Fiji, UK and Africa, who are all part of the growing Hindu population in Australia," he said.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' 2006 Census data, Hinduism has been one of the fastest growing religions. The number of Hindus has more than doubled since 1996 and is now 0.7 percent of the population.

Expatriate Indians visit the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Helensburgh, a small town on the outskirts of Sydney, throughout the year. But on Ganesh Visarjan (immersion) day, over 5,000 people participate in the festivities. Dignitaries who attended the ceremony this year included Attorney General Phillip Ruddock and his wife, and the mayor.

Children performed traditional Indian dances including Kathak, Bharatnatyam and folk dances. There were also stalls selling idols of various Hindu gods and goddesses, religious CDs. Volunteers served hot dosas, puris and other delicacies from the community kitchen.

Women were in their finery - draped in beautiful Kanjeevarams, Patola and Dhakai saris, with flowers adorning their hair. Many men were dressed in traditional kurtas.

Special bus services were organised from Sydney for many new migrants and students without cars. "This year there has been a phenomenal surge in numbers. We normally have two bus trips from the temple to the beach, but this year we had six trips and it still wasn't enough," said Dharan.

Sri Venkateswara Temple complex at Helensburgh is the first Hindu temple of its kind in Australia and has prompted the construction of similar temple complexes in other parts of the country.

A landmark in the history of Hindu immigrants in Australia, the temple was built in 1985 in the traditional Dravidian style of architecture.

During the last 10 years, several Hindu temples have been consecrated in many Australian cities. But the Helensburgh Temple is unique because of its location near the sea, surrounded by bush land, its size, its beauty and the large number of shrines it houses. It has been referred to as "a gem in the bush".

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