Let there be lights — Why this year’s Diwali festival means so much to so many

For Utah Hindus and others, it’s a chance to reconnect after the darkness of COVID-19.

(Bagi Chandrakasan) Priests lead special Diwali prayer services, known as Puja, at the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in 2018.

To Utah’s Indian American community, the ornate Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in South Jordan is more than a religious sanctuary.

It is where older members of the community sprinkled throughout the Salt Lake Valley reconnect with their Indian roots and where second-generation members find their Indian identity. It is where old and young celebrate by dressing in embroidered robes and silk tunics and by clothing their deities in similar finery to reflect the divinity in us all.

And next week, the temple will be bathed in wonder as 500 to 700 Hindus (rather than the usual 2,000) gather for their first post-pandemic — and most important — holiday of the year: Diwali.

The tradition celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, says temple President Balaji Sudabattula, and if you look at COVID-19 as darkness, getting together again will be a real victory.

“We’ve been stuck in our homes for so long. This is a big deal … more sacred this year than lots of other years,” Sudabattula says. “It shows the light of coming out of the pandemic.”

There still will be restrictions, he says, even though temple officials determined through an informal survey that the vast majority of the 9,000 Hindus living in Utah have been vaccinated.

That number is so high, he explains, because many Indian newcomers have arrived in the past two years as the virus has “forced some in-migration [of Hindus] from California.”

During Diwali, which runs from Nov. 2 to 4, masks will be required inside the temple, and only 70 at a time can be in the space that normally would seat hundreds. Others can gather outside in the parking area to mingle.

“The temple,” says Gopika Kamtekar, a member of the temple board, “can be a place where people will come and feel safe.”

She is excited to see “some normalcy coming back,” says Kamtekar, who lost her father in India to the epidemic and couldn’t travel there, “and to bring back hope for better times ahead.”

Linking the generations

(Bagi Chandrakasan) Hindus in Utah celebrate Diwali in 2018. Women and children break out in spontaneous dance at the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple to honor the goddess Lakshmi, who brings prosperity and success.

When the India-born Kamtekar moved to the Beehive State more than two decades ago, the Hindu temple and community helped her introduce her children to the traditions of her homeland.

It was the only way to connect her daughter, now 20, and son, now 16, “to their culture,” she says, and to “keep them attached.”

The temple served the same purpose for Sahana Kargi, a 20-year-old University of Utah student.

“It’s great to have these holidays, which are a great time to meet people who are all Indian, people who look like you,” Kargi says. “You don’t feel out of place.”

Her family, originally from southern India, moved first to Boise, where there wasn’t much of an Indian community or a big Diwali celebration, and then 10 years ago transferred to Utah.

Soon Kargi’s mother started a class in her basement, teaching young children, including her daughter, the fine art of classical Indian dance.

It is called “Bharatanatyam,” which breaks down into “bhavam,” or facial expressions; “ragam,” or music; and “talam,” or rhythmic movements.

(Sudha Kargi) Sahana Kargi performs the classical Indian dance Bharatanatyam.

Dancers wear ankle bells, which help emphasize the beats, she says, not unlike tap dancing.

“Dancing is the way young kids learn Hindu mythology,” Kargi says. “It is a very spiritual exercise.”

By practicing Bharatanatyam, the young Indian American formed “an unbreakable tie to my mother country,” she wrote in a college essay.

In her teen years, however, Kargi tried to blend in with her American neighbors, playing down her family’s South Asian background.

“Instead of being proud of the qualities that made me unique, I resented them,” she wrote. “In recent years, however, I’ve been confident enough in myself to not shy away from my heritage.”

Even in the Hindu community, Kargi felt challenged and wondered whether her Indian self was good enough. She lost confidence in her abilities.

Through it all, the dance saved her.

“Bharatanatyam continues to shape my life in many different ways,” she wrote. “When I was questioned about my heritage, Bharatanatyam was there to help me, and when others questioned me, I used Bharatanatyam to prove them wrong.”

This confidence and identity will be on full display, Kargi says, during next week’s Diwali.

“It is beautiful to know that even though I can’t visit my grandparents,” the young math major says, “they can still share this holiday and these traditions with us.”

Connecting the globe

Diwali is one of the Pan-Indian Hindu festivals that is celebrated in almost all cultural traditions of India from the north to the south and east to west, says Indra Neelameggham, a longtime temple member.

British Airways has staged Diwali dances at the Heathrow Airport, and New York’s Times Square has “the biggest Diwali celebration outside India,” she says, “with a gala of songs, dances, lights, Bollywood personalities, Indian food and merchandise.”

On Diwali, which is derived from the Sanskrit language word for “row of lights,” Neelameggham, says, Hindus decorate homes, streets and businesses with rows of oil lamps or strung lights.

It also includes prayers to the goddess Lakshmi, the patron deity of good fortune and wealth, she says, “so that she may bestow success and prosperity on all.”

During the commemoration, believers visit friends and family, and “seek the blessings of the elderly,” Neelameggham says. “Merchants tally their account books, settle obligations and start new accounts on a fresh book. Children are given gifts of new clothes, money packets and plenty of sweets. Families exchange gifts and traditional Indian sweets.”

Several colorful Indian myths are connected to the festival, Neelameggham says. “In north India, the most popular story is that Diwali is to welcome home Prince Rama, who had rescued his beloved wife, Sita, after vanquishing the evil King Ravana, who had abducted her. In southern India, the story is about Krishna and his wife, Satya, who together battled and vanquished Narakasura, the evil personification of plagues, diseases, suffering and poverty.”

Diwali also holds special significance, she says, for people of other faiths such as Sikhs and Jains.

For her part, Neelameggham hopes that this year’s Diwali “brings us the blessings of overcoming the evil plague COVID that has gripped the whole world.”