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LI Diwali fest spotlights growing Indian community

Members of the Srjian Dance Center perform during

Members of the Srjian Dance Center perform during the Diwali festival at the Long Island Children's Museum in Garden City, on Oct. 23, 2016. Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

Diwali — an important and joyous holiday in India — this year carries extra satisfaction for Long Island’s growing Indian and Hindu community.

Syosset this month became the first school district in New York State to approve Diwali as a school holiday, starting in the 2017-18 school year. Only eight days before that, one of the largest Hindu temples on Long Island opened, drawing nearly 2,000 people to the eye-catching edifice in Melville that was three decades in the making.

Dance performances in recognition of the Festival of Lights already have been held in Hicksville and Garden City. Next weekend, a show in the Stony Brook area celebrating Diwali promises to be the largest ever, with the event’s 500 tickets selling out a month ago.

“It’s a time where the Indian community in Nassau and Suffolk counties is putting their footprint on Long Island and certainly laying down some roots,” said Samir Bhatt, a leader of the new BAPS temple in Melville. “The fruition of the temple was certainly a coming of age for us.”

Niketa Bhatia, who led the petition drive in Syosset to have Diwali recognized as a holiday on the school calendar, agreed the developments were a watershed moment for the community.

“It’s like a turning point on Long Island,” she said.

The region is home to about 56,000 people of Indian descent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, with many concentrated in or near Hicksville — dubbed Long Island’s “Little India.”

Diwali is celebrated for at least five days in India and in many cases up to two weeks, Hindu leaders on Long Island said. Locally, the holiday will be celebrated mostly on Sunday and in some cases Monday as well, though parties and family gatherings take place for days before and after.

The holiday underscores the triumph of good over evil and light over dark, and is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains.

Many of the faithful decorate their homes with festive lights, don new clothes, serve feasts and sweets, exchange gifts and pray at temples — in some cases offering prayers to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.

For some Hindus, Diwali is a New Year celebration and a time for reflection, introspection, enlightenment and pledges to improve, Bhatt said. It also is a time to give thanks to God.

At the 49,000-square-foot temple built by BAPS, which stands for Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, religious ceremonies will take place Sunday and Monday.

On Sunday, a ritual called Chopda Pujan will be held, in which people bring their accounting books, ledgers or other financial records and ask for a blessing and prosperity for the coming year.

As a Hindu priest leads the ceremony, devotees perform an hourlong ritual with materials including rice, water, powder and a sacred thread that is tied around the wrist, Bhatt said. They perform the ritual before a small image of Hindu idols.

Monday will be an even bigger day, as the faithful celebrate Annakut, another ritual in which they give thanks to the Hindu gods. Hundreds of the faithful are expected to prepare dishes of food at home and bring them to the temple to be offered to the gods.

After the food is displayed before the sacred images in the temple’s sanctuary and blessed, it will be eaten by the community in the evening. Annakut is translated as “a mountain of food,” Bhatt said.

Next week, a Diwali show — the ninth annual edition of the event in the Stony Brook area — is planned for Nov. 5 at John F. Kennedy Junior High School in Port Jefferson Station.

Organizer Harbinger Singh said the show has grown from an audience of 200 to a sold-out 500 — and he is certain he could attract more if he could find a larger available location.

Diwali also is gaining recognition in the United States and across cultural lines: This year, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring the holiday. On Long Island, some non-Hindus are adding their voices to Hindu groups as residents lobby in at least 10 communities to have it recognized as a school holiday, following in Syosset’s footsteps.

“I think we should be celebrating and acknowledging each other’s culture,” said Jami DeVellis, a self-described Irish-Italian Catholic who is the co-president of the PTA at Robert Seaman Elementary School in Jericho. “It’s great to be different. How bland the world would be if we were all alike.”

Diwali events

  • BAPS Temple, Deshon Drive, Melville

Sunday, 4-6 p.m., Chopda Pujan: The faithful seek blessings for prosperity in the new year.

Monday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Annakut: The faithful bring specially made food and offer it to the gods. In the evening, the faithful eat the food.

  • Asa’Mai Hindu temple, 80 E. Barclay St., Hicksville

Sunday, temple opens 8 a.m. and open throughout the day for prayers. Special Diwali prayers, 7-8 p.m.

  • Stony Brook Diwali festival

Nov. 5, 2 p.m. at John F. Kennedy Junior High School, Port Jefferson Station. A show features local Indian community members performing traditional dances and songs. Tickets required.


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