Nonetheless, it's also easy for people to get the basics wrong.

"First of all, Hindus worship one God," said Rao, "and that one God is infinite, with infinite qualities and infinite names. But some people think Hindus worship many gods. When we worship Ganesh, we worship only one God. No Hindu says Ishwara (God) is two."

In America, celebrations have been occurring in Hindu enclaves across the country. On the opening day of the festival at the Hindu Temple Society of North America in New York, hundreds of devotees watched as the Ganesh idol was hefted into the air by eight men and paraded outside. As the bearers approached a low overhang, the priest commanded like a drill sergeant, "Downnn!"

And in New Jersey, Tirupathi Srinivasan Devanathan carried out his first Ganesh puja on his own, molding a small lump of sandalwood paste into a makeshift idol, inverting the emptied half-rind of a lemon into an oil lamp.

It had been less than a year since the computer programmer had arrived from Chennai, in South India, and the experience was bittersweet.

"I felt quite sad that I was not with my family in India," he said. "But I had to perform my duty."

The relationship that followers have with Ganesh is clearly an intimate one, and is felt most strongly at the end of the festival. The idol has been immersed and the house feels strangely empty.

"You come home and you feel sad," said Menon, recalling past festivals. "You feel like you've lost somebody."

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