Indians celebrate festival of lights

By

Participants in this year's Diwali celebration dance at the Hampton Inn in Colchester last Friday. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Participants in this year’s Diwali celebration dance at the Hampton Inn in Colchester last Friday. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Fragrant cuisine, flashing cameras and swirling saris in a rainbow of colors beckoned visitors to a ballroom at Colchester’s Hampton Inn on Friday evening.

From babies to the elderly, folks of all ages gathered to celebrate Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights, organized by Vermont’s Indian Cultural Club.

The ICC, a non-profit group, has welcomed the state’s Indian families to celebratory cultural events like Diwali for nearly 50 years.

With plates full of steaming food, hundreds of attendees posed for photos and caught up with friends before gathering for a cultural show, performed on a dance floor at the front of the event space.

Attendees heard traditional Indian songs, applauded an upbeat Bollywood dance and laughed heartily at a series of jokes.

Georgia residents Pat and Kosha Patel chuckled to themselves as they observed the chattering adults, energetic kiddos and blaring music from the perimeter of the room.

“It’s organized chaos,” Pat Patel said, laughing. “Happy chaos.”

Pat Patel is a professor of international business at Champlain College. Kosha Patel teaches at Sheldon Elementary School.

It’s only the second time the couple has attended the ICC’s Diwali celebration. Both born in India, they said they still celebrate major Indian festivals and holidays, but don’t usually observe the smaller traditions.

“For this event, because it’s the biggest one, I’m here,” Pat Patel said.

They’re in good company, according to ICC board member Yogesh Khatri. The club hosts a half-dozen well-attended events each year, but Diwali draws the biggest crowd by far.

“It’s like our Christmas,” Khatri said.

Diwali is a five-day festival, celebrated by Hindus across the world, that coincides with the Hindu New Year and promotes the concept of good over evil, light over darkness, Khatri said.

Unlike the traditional Christmas, Diwali celebrations encompass five different festivals, all celebrated on separate days. Each festival prompts its own unique traditions.

During Dhanteras, observing Hindus often purchase gold and silver jewelry, vehicles and other precious possessions. It’s an important day for businessmen and women, and mass arrangements of worship are made at well decorated-buildings.

A woman performs a traditional Bollywood dance during a cultural show. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

A woman performs a traditional Bollywood dance during a cultural show. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

On Deepawali, the day of Diwali, houses are decorated with rangolis – intricate patterns made with colored powders. Fireworks are not an unusual sight, Khatri said, as they symbolize the joy and light of the festival.

Nearly 200 guests came out to celebrate just that last week. It was a typical turnout for the club, with attendees representing a little more than half of the Indian population living in the Burlington area, Khatri estimated.

The crowd has far outgrown the numbers the ICC attracted when it was founded, back in 1968. Then, only a handful of Indians were living in Vermont, Kahtri said.

Other ICC events promoted throughout the year include Holi, the Indian festival of colors; Makar Sankranti, a harvest festival celebrated by flying vibrantly-colored kites; and a summer cultural talent show.

Kosha Patel said her family’s presence at Friday’s Diwali event was motivated, in large part, by their 11-year-old son. The couple said they want the Burlington-born boy to take part in some Indian traditions.

“We’re not regulars,” Kosha Patel said. “But I think it’s a good way for the Indian community to get together and for the kids to see the big festivals and holidays.”

With millions celebrating throughout the world, Khatri said the stories told for Diwali can vary based on region.

Still, all point to light as a reminder of the importance of knowledge, self-improvement and compassion to others.