A celebration of life, relationships

Barron Park residents observe Indian Diwali, the Festival of Lights

A festival of enlightenment, of the triumph of good over evil, will take place in Barron Park this Sunday, Nov. 15, when residents join together for Diwali, the ancient Hindu Festival of Lights.

The event, which is open to all those who live in the Barron Park neighborhood, is the latest in a series of Barron Park Association-sponsored diversity activities, which strive to share the cultures of new immigrants with their neighbors and build community. It will include a henna booth, Indian music, dance, food and chai, and plenty of good spirits during the three-hour event that starts at 2 p.m. at Barron Park Elementary School.

Beyond observing a tradition, the Barron Park festival has taken on a broader significance for its organizers.

"I've been here six years, and we didn't know each other," Nita Ganapathi said of the 12 to 14 people on the Diwali committee. But just working together as organizers is enabling them to form relationships, within and without the Indian community.

Committee member Lydia Kou agreed.

"I've learned about their culture. They are very giving people. I've just enjoyed the friendship, rather than walking by with a solemn 'Hello,'" she said. "And they know how to party."

Ganapathi and fellow committee member Jaya Pandey smiled.

"We break into a dance at the drop of a hat," Ganapathi said.

Diwali marks the start of the Indian new year and takes place after the fall harvest. Its traditions date back to at least the mid-first millennium A.D., according to scholars. It celebrates the three aspects of the feminine: power, wisdom and abundance, Ganapathi said. And it is about cleansing the negativity inside oneself.

Pandey said Diwali is preceded by Navratri (also known as Navrathri), which goes on for nine nights and 10 days. Navratri is a time to pay homage and respect to ancestors and to the Divine Mother Durga -- the mother of the universe. A large lamp stays lit for all nine days, worshiping the nine forms of Devi, the female goddess.

"It is a light to the sky, to the heavens," Ganapathi said.

Hindus then celebrate Diwali for five nights. The main celebration typically occurs on the new moon, the darkest night, in late October or in November. Every state in India has a variation on Diwali, Pandey and Ganapathi said.

People clean and repair their homes and businesses and add colorful decorations. They honor important relationships and friendships.

Lights -- from hundreds to thousands -- fill every room and are kept burning throughout all of the days of the festival. On other festival days, there are special bathing rituals in some regions, and women decorate their hands with henna, the symbols of which are thought to bring blessings and protection.

The third night of Diwali honors Lakshmi, the goddess of material and spiritual wealth, fortune and prosperity. People dress in their finest or new clothes and jewelry and open their doors and windows, lighting the way with lights and lanterns for Lakshmi to enter and bring prosperity.

The new clothes and cleaned homes and businesses also signify life's transitory nature, Pandey said.

"Everything is impermanent. You don't have to possess things," she said.

In the two days following the main celebration, spouses celebrate their mutual love and devotion and siblings celebrate their loving relationships.

Ganapathi said that Diwali also offers a sense of continuity.

"All of the generations get together, and it's a way to pass on the culture," she said.

For expatriates like Ganapathi and Pandey, handing down traditions to younger generations can be somewhat problematic because, in a sense, the elder generation is stuck in a time capsule, Ganapathi said.

"What we did 20, 30, 40 years ago, we're stuck in that," she said of traditions they've imported to the United States. But in India, the culture is continually growing -- assimilating both the ancient and the modern.

"It continually accepts new things into it," she said.

It's the universal values -- the concepts of love, devotion, friendship and neighborliness -- celebrated in Diwali that remain constant, they said. And ultimately, that's what they hand down.

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