Long Island Hindus, Sikhs and Jains marked one of the key days of Diwali on Friday at events including a New Year’s celebration at a major Hindu temple in Melville.
Diwali, also known as the “Festival of Lights,” is an important and joyous holiday for the region’s growing Indian community. Generally lasting five days, it symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair.
“It is a time when charity, goodwill, family values and the love of God are celebrated and reinforced,” said Samir Bhatt, a leader of the BAPS temple in Melville, which opened a year ago and is the largest Hindu temple in Nassau or Suffolk counties.
For many of the faithful, Diwali is also a time for reflection, introspection, enlightenment and pledges to improve.
On Friday, the temple celebrated the Hindu calendar’s New Year with a special religious ritual known as Annakut. The faithful prepared dishes of traditional foods at home, then brought them to the temple to offer to the gods.
The homemade vegetarian food was displayed before the sacred images in the temple’s sanctuary and blessed, and then was to be eaten by the community in the evening. Annakut is translated as “a mountain of food.”
“It’s not simply a feast,” Bhatt noted. “It’s about the love that goes into the preparation of the food.”
Some 750 items were placed before the sacred images of gods, including Lord Krishna and Lord Shiva, said Girish Patel, another leader of the temple. He said they had to limit the number because of space, and that temple members would have brought even more.
Devanshi Patel, 21, of New Hyde Park, was at the temple and said it was the first time she had celebrated Diwali with her family in three years because she has been away in Boston studying computer science at Northeastern University. She is home for six months, doing an internship in Manhattan.
“This is a big event,” she said, with the New Year offering Hindus a “fresh start” that is “bringing light into your life.”
Kirtan Chauhan, 22, an East Meadow resident and second-year medical student at New York University, said the religious ceremony “means a lot. I stay connected to my culture.”
Diwali also helps him strengthen bonds with his parents, siblings and extended family, he said.
Diwali celebrations and rituals started Tuesday and end Saturday. Long Island is home to about 56,000 people of Indian descent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
On Thursday, many of the faithful decorated their homes with festive lights, donned new clothes, served feasts and sweets, exchanged gifts and prayed at temples — in some cases offering prayers to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.
The holidays had special significance for many of the faithful this year since their school districts recognized Diwali as a holiday for the first time. Districts including Syosset, Herricks and Hicksville canceled classes for the day on Thursday.
Many of the communities petitioned their school boards to declare Diwali a school holiday last fall around the time of the holiday.
“It feels wonderful,” said Niketa Bhatia, who led the successful petition drive in Syosset. “We finally feel like we belong here. When I saw it in the [school] calendar, it was an unbelievable feeling. It almost seemed unreal.
“It’s important that we are recognized as a contributing part of the American culture,” she added. “I think it’s really important to have everybody feel that. . . . America is not just about Christianity or Judaism, but it’s also Hinduism and Sikhism and the Chinese cultures, Buddhism — and that we all coexist in America.”