Let there be lights: Why this year’s Diwali holiday means so much to so many people
It's an opportunity for Utah Hindus and others to reconnect after the gloom of COVID-19.
The beautiful Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in South Jordan is more than a religious refuge for Utah’s Indian American population.
It is where senior members of the Salt Lake Valley Indian community reconnect with their Indian ancestors and second-generation individuals discover their Indian identity. It is a time when elderly and young alike rejoice by donning embroidered robes and silk tunics and dressed their deities in comparable finery to symbolize the divinity in all of us.
And, next week, the temple will be drenched in awe when 500 to 700 Hindus (rather than the typical 2,000) congregate for Diwali, the first post-pandemic — and most significant — celebration of the year.
According to temple President Balaji Sudabattula, the ritual commemorates the triumph of light over darkness, and if you consider COVID-19 to represent darkness, coming together again will be a true victory.
“We’ve been cooped up in our houses for so long. “This is a major occasion… more holy than many other years,” Sudabattula explains. “It depicts the light emerging from the pestilence.”
There will still be limits, he adds, despite the fact that temple authorities concluded via an informal poll that the great majority of Utah’s 9,000 Hindus had been vaccinated.
That figure is so high, he argues, because the virus has “driven some in-migration [of Hindus] from California” in the last two years.
During Diwali, which takes place from November 2 to 4, masks will be needed inside the temple, and just 70 people at a time will be allowed in the room that regularly seats hundreds. Others may interact outdoors in the parking lot.
“The temple can be a place where people can come and feel comfortable,” says Gopika Kamtekar, a member of the temple board.
“I’m pleased to see some normality returning,” adds Kamtekar, who lost her father in India to the virus and was unable to visit home, “and to restore hope for better days ahead.”
Bringing the generations together
When India-born Kamtekar relocated to the Beehive State more than two decades ago, the Hindu temple and community assisted her in introducing her children to her homeland’s customs.
It was the only way to keep her daughter, now 20, and son, now 16, “connected” to their culture, she adds.
For Sahana Kargi, a 20-year-old University of Utah student, the temple fulfilled the same function.
“It’s nice to have these holidays because it’s a terrific opportunity to meet individuals who are all Indian and look like you,” Kargi adds. “You don’t seem to be out of place.”
Her family, originating from southern India, went to Boise, where there wasn’t much of an Indian community or a huge Diwali celebration, before relocating to Utah 10 years ago.
Soon after, Kargi’s mother began teaching young children, including her daughter, the noble art of traditional Indian dance in her basement.
It’s called “Bharatanatyam,” and it’s divided into three parts: “bhavam,” or face emotions, “ragam,” or music, and “talam,” or rhythmic movements.
She claims that dancers wear ankle bells to better highlight the rhythms, similar to how tap dancers do.
“Dancing is how young children understand Hindu mythology,” Kargi explains. “It’s a spiritual activity.”
The young Indian American acquired “an unshakable relationship to my home country” through learning Bharatanatyam, she said in a college essay.
Kargi, on the other hand, sought to fit in with her American neighbors as an adolescent, downplaying her family’s South Asian heritage.
“Instead of being proud of the characteristics that made me distinct,” she wrote, “I loathed them.” “However, in recent years, I’ve become secure enough in myself to embrace my background.”
Even inside the Hindu community, Kargi felt challenged and questioned if her Indian identity was enough. She had lost faith in her talents.
Throughout it all, she was rescued by the dancing.
“Bharatanatyam continues to influence my life in a variety of ways,” she said. “Bharatanatyam was there to support me when I was questioned about my background, and when others questioned me, I utilized Bharatanatyam to show them incorrect.”
This self-assurance and sense of identity, according to Kargi, will be on full show during Diwali next week.
“It’s wonderful to know that even if I can’t see my grandparents,” adds the young math student, “they can still experience this holiday and these customs with us.”
Connecting the world
According to Indra Neelameggham, a longstanding temple member, Diwali is one of the Pan-Indian Hindu holidays that is observed in practically all cultural traditions of India from north to south and east to west.
Diwali dances have been hosted at Heathrow Airport by British Airways, while Times Square in New York holds “the greatest Diwali celebration outside India,” she claims, “with a gala of music, dances, lights, Bollywood stars, Indian cuisine, and products.”
Hindus adorn houses, streets, and businesses with rows of oil lamps or strung lights during Diwali, which is derived from the Sanskrit language phrase for “row of lights,” according to Neelameggham.
It also involves prayers to the goddess Lakshmi, the patron Goddess of luck and money, “so that she may shower success and prosperity on everybody,” she explains.
During the celebration, Christians visit friends and relatives and “seek the blessings of the aged,” according to Neelameggham. “Merchants balance their books, pay their commitments, and begin new accounts on a new book.” Children are given new clothing, money packets, and an abundance of sweets as presents. Gifts and traditional Indian delicacies are exchanged between families.”
According to Neelameggham, the holiday is linked to a number of colorful Indian mythology. “The most common myth in north India is that Diwali celebrates the return of Prince Rama, who recovered his beloved wife, Sita, after defeating the wicked King Ravana, who had stolen her.” The myth is told in southern India about Krishna and his wife, Satya, who fought and defeated Narakasura, the demonic incarnation of plagues, illnesses, misery, and poverty.”
Diwali is also significant for individuals of different religions, such as Sikhs and Jains, she notes.
Neelameggham, for one, hopes that this Diwali “brings us the benefits of defeating the wicked disease COVID that has overtaken the whole planet.”