The stars had descended to Earth: shimmering red, green and
gold starbursts illumined the night sky as a medley of fireworks erupted from
a barge on the East River, delighting thousands of spectators.
Residents in buildings close to the South Street Seaport could be forgiven
for doing a double take.
Fourth of July celebrations on Oct. 5?
This second-largest display of pyrotechnics in New York City heralded the
start of celebrations for Diwali, an Indian festival of lights that takes place
on Oct. 25 this year. Indeed, the annual festival at South Street Seaport was
the kickoff for the holiday season for the Indian-American community in the
Diwali, the most important festival for Hindus worldwide, is many
celebrations rolled into one, with religious rituals, festive meals and gift
There are several stories about Diwali. In north India, it marks the
triumph of Prince Rama, the hero of the epic Ramayana, who returned to his
kingdom after vanquishing the 10-headed demon Ravana. In south India, Diwali
commemorates the victory of the Lord Krishna over Narakasura, a demon.
During Diwali, every small town and big city in India is lit up with
strings of colored lights and millions of flickering earthen lamps filled with
oil. Fireworks light the night sky during the celebrations of Diwali, and the
joy of the season means that sweets are exchanged with family, friends and
Diwali is about prayer, rejuvenation and new beginnings, and so in temples,
family shrines and offices, prayer rituals take place as icons are bathed in
milk and honey, and offered fresh flowers and sweets. Lakshmi, the goddess of
wealth, is supposed to visit every home, and so there is a frenzy of cleaning
and painting to welcome her.
This year, Hallmark introduced Diwali cards, so will a Diwali postage stamp
be next? The Indian community is also working to get Diwali celebrated and
recognized at the White House.
The 2000 census lists 1.86 million Indians in the United States, although
the rate has been growing by almost 10 percent annually and the population may
now surpass 2 million. There are about 1 million Hindus in the United States.
Urmilesh Arya, medical director at Queensbridge Family Health Center in
Long Island City, is president of the New York chapter of the Association of
Indians in America, which has organized the celebration of culture, cuisine and
lights at the South Street Seaport for 16 years. "This festival is for
everybody, for we want to promote our culture in America, and our motto is
'Indian heritage and American commitment," she said.
Smiti Khanna, a past president of the association, conceived of the South
Street festivities. She came to America at 20 in 1967 and recalls: "I'd left
all my friends behind, and I was lost for a while." In those days, there were
no big Diwali celebrations in New York, and the idea was to have a platform
where all communities could come together, she said. The celebration was a way
of interacting with the mainstream and also giving a touch of Diwali
festivities to homesick Indians and their American- born children.
"When I came in 1970, if I saw any Indian woman in a sari, I used to run
after her and talk to her, because there were so few Indians," said Divya Shah
of Manhattan, who organized the cultural program. "We really used to miss all
the celebrations, the meetings, the eating and fireworks, so we decided to
capture that and bring the best of India and show it to America."
Thousands of families jammed Pier 16 on Oct. 5, visiting the scores of
stalls of Indian delicacies and street foods, shopping for new outfits for
Diwali or simply picking up lamps and Diwali decorations for their homes.
Diwali melas, or street fairs, are a part of the holiday season in India, so it
was a return to a long-loved ritual.
Several dance schools performed dances from classical to Bollywood- style,
and the masters of classical music played. An exhibition, "Glimpses of India,"
highlighted the theme of this year's celebration: peace on Earth.
Indeed, for Indians from all parts of the tristate area, the mela has
become a mandatory stopover during the holiday season. Malathi Gauba of
Jamaica, a vendor at the fair, did a brisk business in colorful clay lamps and
icons of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god.
Young people listened to lively music and ate the spicy snacks. Kiran
Karnani, in her 20s, of Manhattan met her parents, Sham and Saroj from Paramus,
N.J. "It's one time we can get all our people together in one place," she
said. "It's something that's ours, so it's something to be part of."
The festival increasingly draws from outside the community. Ramla and
Rehbar Tayyabkhan, of Scotch Plains, N.J., came. "We are not even Indian, we're
Pakistani! We have a lot of friends from India, and we meet up with them here.
It's a very colorful, lively occasion, and we're glad to be part of it."
The festival's importance has permeated the social scene and business
world, for it marks the Hindu New Year when all businesses do chopda pujan, or
veneration of their business books. Diwali is considered an auspicious period
to buy a home or finalize a business deal. In the busiest shopping season for
the Indian-American community, shopkeepers present a mix of culture and
The Jackson Heights Merchants Association lit up the trees on 74th Street
and presented a rousing Diwali street fair with music and dance on Oct. 12.
Shiv Dass, president of the association, said about 200 merchants
participate, and almost all the stores have Diwali sales. Business increases by
at least 20 to 25 percent, while the sale of Indian sweets triples over the
holiday season, according to Dass.
"The lights will be kept on for four months, covering the coming festivals
of Diwali, the Muslim celebration of Eid, Christmas, Hanukkah and the New
Year," Dass said. "The street looks beautiful, lit up and lively, and there's
excitement in the air, like at Diwali time in India."
At the fair, the thronging crowds were delighted to see one of the hottest
Bollywood stars, Urmila Matondkar, on stage. The actress had flown in from
Mumbai to perform on Oct. 11 at a Miss Diwali Beauty Pageant at York College in
Bindu Kohli of the Dheeraj Cultural Foundation, who organizes the annual
event, said young women from the tristate area compete for the title. This
year's winner was Kumari Singh of Elmhurst.
A day before Diwali is Dhantheras - the veneration of ornaments, when
Hindus buy gold as a symbol of good luck. Other rituals are Anakutam -
gathering of food. The worshippers bring in hundreds of offerings of sweets and
fruits to the temple to be blessed by the goddess, Lakshmi.
Uma Mysorekar of the Hindu Temple Society in Flushing says, "Our main
prayer for Diwali is not only hoping for prosperity for the universe but also
peace for the universe. When there is peace, there is prosperity."
Payal Butala of Jackson Heights tries to maintain the traditions of her
hometown of Baroda in India. She has been here for eight years but still misses
the extravagant celebrations in India.
"In Baroda, there used to be a two- week vacation for Diwali while here,
it's just a regular work day, and we have to celebrate on the weekend."
She tries to recreate the magic of the festival in India with her
daughters, Aditi, 5, and Avani, 5 months, through the prism of her memories.
She and her husband, Shaswat, who own the Butala Emporium in Jackson Heights,
visit a temple and celebrate with friends.
"There is less and less desire to go back to India for Diwali since ... we
can do all the things we could not even imagine back in the early '70s," Divya
Shah said. "I think we have brought India to New York and to America."
Celebrating The Festival of Lights
Some local Diwali celebrations:
Oct. 22-26 at the Hindu Temple Society of North America, 45-57 Bowne St.,
Flushing. Events include special ceremonies and prayers to Lakshmi, the goddess
of prosperity. Call 718-460-8484.
Neelkanth Dham Temple Interfaith Community Center, 204-11 Jamaica Ave., Hollis,
has special public prayers for Diwali 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 26 at Lot 5, near
the boathouse at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The prayers in the open air
will be followed by
langar, a vegetarian community luncheon. Call 718-479-3513.