THOUSANDS of people flocked to Shoebury East Beach for a hugely popular Hindu festival.

The festival celebrated the birthday of the Hindu god Ganesh, one of the most distinctive symbols of Hinduism thanks to his elephant’s head and huge pot-belly.

It is thought as many as 18,000 people attended from across Essex, Kent, Middlesex, London, the Midlands and even India.

A huge food tent in the field behind the beach served traditional Indian delicacies, while the main marquee, which contained statues of Ganesh and other gods, was filled with people praying, dancing and chanting to joyous live music.

At the end of the day Ganesh and the other statues were taken out to sea and immersed in the water, while worshippers chanted and showered them in flower petals.

One of the organisers, Jyoti Patel, from Hawkwell, said: “The belief is he is among us during the prayers and then he is released and free to return to his parents through the water.

“This is the fifth year we’ve held the Ganesh Visarjan festival.

“It gets bigger and bigger. It started off very small and maybe just over 2,000 people came.

“Now, people come in coaches from all over the country. Everyone really looks forward to it and we have a lot of fun.

“I would like to thank Southend Council for all its help with the organising, which seems to take me most of the year.

“This is a very religious day, as we are celebrating Lord Ganesh’s birthday.”

Ganesh is the god of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth.

The annual event in Shoebury is the biggest Ganesh Visarjan festival outside of India.

Suresh Varma, 58, from St Mary’s Close, Shoebury, was delighted to see so many Hindus worshipping together in Southend.

He said: “This is the main event for the whole year for the local Hindu community. It is both a colourful and enjoyable day and an important religious festival.”

Asat Chadha, from Northolt, Middlesex, said: “I’ve come here today with my sister who is visiting from India. This festival in Shoebury is very well known all over, even in Mumbai and other parts of India.”