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New Surge Of Interest In Deepavali: Festival Of Lights In North America

The Festival of Lights has become the identity marker that connects with a distant past, while also ensuring traditions continue for a new generation of diasporic Indians.

An American student in my Cultures of India class at the University of California, Santa Cruz, asked me if she could write a research paper on Diwali. She is in charge of organizing a Diwali party at her corporate office in the Bay Area and the festival fascinates her.

US universities, media see increased interest in Diwali

When I came to the United States three decades ago, hardly anyone talked about Diwali. Now, with about 3 million Indian Americans, a substantial number in every state, there is a curiosity about the feasts and festivals they celebrate. More and more students of diverse backgrounds participate in Holi and Diwali celebrations on their university campuses. Diwali has become a much-talked-about festival in the United States.

When Obama became the first president to celebrate Diwali at the White House in 2009, the Desis were thrilled. Every newspaper in India and the diaspora flaunted the news on social media. The US postal service even issued a Diwali postage stamp a few years ago.

This year, the list of Forever® stamps carries a Diwali special stamp. It will remain equal in value to the current First-Class Mail. The October 19th edition of The New York Times has showcased stores selling Diwali sweets all over the USA in its food section.

I grew up celebrating Diwali among many feasts and festivals, each loaded with myths, folklore, and legends. However, keeping up with monotheistic traditions in America, Diwali stands out as India’s major festival. It makes Indian immigrants happy with a semblance of recognition as a minority.

Diwali evokes childhood nostalgia from Odisha

This year Diwali, in Sanskrit, known as  Deepavali (a garland or a row of lights), is celebrated on Monday, October 24th, exactly twenty days after the Vijaya Dashami (Durga Puja), according to the lunar calendar. It falls in  Kartika (October – November), the most auspicious month for Hindus. Kartika is known as the vegetarian month; the Odias are famous fish eaters.

But the meat and fish markets in my hometown, Cuttack, remain deserted. People are busy celebrating numerous rituals and worshipping gods and goddesses. Women, especially widows eat only one meal a day to gain Punya (virtues).

Since I moved to the United States, I have missed the hustle and bustle of Deepavali. There is a saying in Odi – bara mase tera jaata ( in twelve months, there are thirteen festivals). My earliest memory of celebrating Deepavali reminds me of my childhood. I grew up in Cuttack, an 11th-century city famous for its maritime trade, where I felt the city was always celebrating feasts. First came Dussehra, then Kumara Purnima, followed by Deepavali.

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The many mythical interpretations of Deepavali

Deepavali is associated with numerous myths – the goddess Lakshmi; the return of Ram with Sita and Lakshman to the Ayodhya kingdom after 14 years of exile; and the return of the Pandavas as per Mahabharata. Merchants close their books of the year past in northern India and start the new year with new accounts on Diwali day.

Goddess Lakshmi: In my home state, Goddess Lakshmi is worshiped on Deepavali. She stands for wealth, good fortune, and personal well-being. Lakshmi Puja is one of the major attractions of the festival in some regions of the state. Dhenkanal, a small city about 60 km from Cuttack, is mainly known for the famous Lakshmi puja.

I had the good fortune of being there to see Laksmi medhas (pandals) all over the city on Deepavali day in 2019. In western India, the legend goes that Lord Vishnu in his 5th incarnation as Vamana rescued Lakshmi from the prison of King Bali.

Ramayana: Deepavali is celebrated as the festival of triumph, glory, and a new beginning. As per the legend, after a 14-year exile, when Ram, along with his brother Lakshman and wife Sita, returned to their kingdom Ayodhya, people celebrated the festival of Lights. The whole kingdom rejoiced Ram’s return. As a result, the day is remembered as a family reunion and a collective celebration of justness and order.

Mahabharata: Deepavali is also known as Kartika Amavasya, and on this day the Pancha Pandavas from the epic Mahabharata returned from their 12 years of exile. People celebrated the day by lighting thousands of earthen lamps and distributing sweets. In southern India, Deepavali stands for the victory of Lord Krishna fighting the demon Narakasura.

Even though festivals like Deepavali are celebrated differently in different cultural regions of India, these stories recount the triumph of good over evil and signify a new beginning. On this day, Hindus wear new clothes, visit their friends and relatives, exchange sweets and light diyas (lamps) in the evening, and burst firecrackers to illuminate the year’s darkest night.

Sweets are a big part of Diwali in both India and the USA

All good things start with sweets. On Diwali, special sweets are prepared, known as Deepavali sweets. In Cuttack, there are sweet stores everywhere. A particular caste group known as gudias is traditionally engaged in sweet making.

I remember a family-run mithai store on Ranihat square, a five minutes walk from my home in Cuttack. On my way to the primary school, I would watch the whole family busy making sweets like laddoosjalebischhena GajaKala kand, and plain and sweetened puffed paddy (khai and ukhuda). 

For Deepavali, their specialty was sugar based sweets made in unique animal shapes like elephants, horses, and cows. These animals looked very enticing, tied to colorful threads and hanging from the ceiling. On that day, I would accompany my father to choose my favorite sweets.

In the diaspora today,  sweet shops are part of selected conclaves of Indian grocery stores and restaurants, where even Indian grocery stores carry sweets, unlike in India.

My university town does not even have an Indian grocery store or sweet store. When I crave Indian sweets, I go to Rangoli on El Camino Real or Raja Sweets in Union City with my family. It reminds me of the sweet stores I grew up with – glass cases exhibiting sweets in many shapes, forms, textures, and in varieties of colors.

During Deepavali, the stores would be busy packing sweets in colorful boxes and Desis beelining for them. Nowadays, so many new sweets have been introduced. Sweets stores here import new ideas and techniques from India.

Firecrackers, once synonymous with Diwali are loaded with toxic chemicals

In my childhood, firecrackers were one of the defining features of Diwali. My father would buy a medley of firecrackers like sparklers, chakkars, flower pots, rockets, pencils, twinkling stars, and a bunch of talaphotka (crackers made from palm leaf).

These days, life-threatening chemicals are used to make more powerful firecrackers. Firecrackers made in China have replaced locally manufactured ones. Many people use these toxic firecrackers, and the horrendous bursts last throughout the night.

Several state governments in India have banned the use of firecrackers beyond a specific time of the night to control noise pollution and disturbance to others.

Humble earthen lamps brightened homes on Diwali

The best part of the event was lighting the lamps in the evening. When twilight hit, my mother would light earthen lamps filled with castor oil and cotton wicks, so they would last for a long time. The lamps looked like a ray of lights welcoming the Pandavas, king Ram with his kin, and inviting Goddess Lakshmi to brighten the household and bless us with good food and life.

This summer when I was in Cuttack, I visited my favorite family-run earthen lamp store. I discovered that they do not make lamps anymore.  Instead, they get them from China en route to Kolkata.

A day to remember and honor ancestors

On Deepavali, people also remember their ancestors and invite them to partake in the family festivities. It is called Paya shraddha. In the evening, family members in my neighborhood used to light a bunch of Kaunria (jute sticks), point them to the sky and call their ancestors. It is known as Bada Badia Daka. The families wish their ancestors good luck and rejoice in their festivities.

Bada Badia ho, andhara re asa, alua re jaaa,

Dear ancestors, come in darkness and go back along the lighted path.

Mahaprasada khai baishi pahacha re gada gadau thaaa. 

Have a hearty meal of Maha Prasada (consecrated food from Jagannath) and keep rolling on the 22 steps of the Jagannath temple.

Diwali paved way for community bonding in the USA

When I moved to the US and settled in the bay area in 1989, I did not know of any celebration for Diwali. I started a Diwali party here in Santa Cruz with lighted earthen lamps and lots of Indian food. It opened our doors to Indian and non-Indian friends.

We shared food and exchanged love and friendship that helped me integrate into this foreign land. My husband and I wanted our young boys to understand the festival’s value. It was a way for them to be proud of our culture even if they grew up in America.

In the diaspora, all the religious festivals generally occur at the temple. There was only one Hindu temple in Fremont besides the one in Livermore in the 1980s. In the last thirty years, the number of temples has grown exponentially. Desi families flock to the temples with their children.

Traditions tie us to our roots even in a foreign land

It becomes the busiest time for the sweet sellers in the community and pundits at temples. Parents tell stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata to embed their children in the Hindu tradition. Celebrations like Diwali bring the mythic past buried in our memory to life.

One can see that Hindus from different regions of India in the diaspora have brought their gods and goddesses enshrined in temples built everywhere. These temples have become the sites for celebrating various feasts, festivals, rituals, and ceremonies bringing people of Indian descent together and making them feel at home in a distant land they have claimed as their own.

Here, a tradition becomes the identity marker and not only connects with a distant past but also ensures future continuities for a new generation of diasporic Indians. It makes its presence felt in new spaces such as corporate offices in silicon valley, market enclaves on El Camino Real, and commemorative US postal stamps.

Published here first.

Image source: a screengrab from the Diwali celebrations video posted by American VP Kamala Harris on Twitter.

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About the Author

Annapurna Pandey

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a PhD in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge read more...

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