This past Sunday, Diwali was celebrated in Fairbanks for the 20th consecutive year. The annual event, which has grown very popular, is hosted by Namaste India, a club for Indian students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. And this year as always, several hundred people were on hand to share in the festivities.
Diwali is an Indian festival that has multiple meanings, according to Debasmita Misra, professor of geological engineering and the faculty adviser for Namaste India. “In different parts of India it has different implications,” he explained in an interview prior to the event. “If you go to the Northwest and West, it is a new year’s day. It’s the closure of the fiscal year. Diwali is celebrated in the eastern parts and down to Southwest India mostly as a triumph of good over evil. If you go North, it is again the triumph of good over evil, and it also celebrates the return of Ram.”
This latter meaning is rooted in the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana, which tells the story of how Ram (or Rama), the prince of the Kosala Kingdom, rescued his wife Sita, who had been kidnapped and taken to Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka). It’s the most well known tale in India, and has been embraced by Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, as well as the Hindus among whom it originated. This is why, Misra said, in India Diwali is “now a national celebration.”
In Fairbanks it’s become an event for everyone, something that Namaste India has striven to accomplish, according to the club’s president, Rama Dandekar.
“Diwali is a festival celebrated with family and community,” she explained in the same interview, “and we do the same thing here.”
Dandekar, who grew up in Fairbanks and is now a student at UAF, said the local celebration began in 2000. Initially held in homes, Diwali moved to the Southside Community Center for a few years before relocating to the Wood Center Ballroom, where it has been taking place since 2011.
As always, this year’s event began with the singing of the U.S. National anthem, followed by its Indian counterpart. Then Misra took the mic to explain to attendees the meaning of Diwali. Next came opening remarks from UAF Chancellor Daniel White.
UAF Provost Anupma Prakash, originally from India herself, discussed the festival’s celebration of the Hindu deities Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) and Ganesh (the elephant-headed god of wisdom). Mahesh Shriwas, a professor of mining engineering who recently joined the faculty, followed with a discussion of Diwali that led to the lighting of the Diya, an oil lamp used to symbolize light. The lighting was done by White, Prakash, and Misra’s wife, Lily.
Misra had explained in the interview that, “The lights signify, let’s get rid of the darkness within us.” Diwali, he had said, is a celebration of both internal and external light.
Shriwas’ daughter, Malvika Shriwas, is the vice president of Namaste India. Also part of the earlier interview, she explained how her family would celebrate Diwali back home. Diwali is a five day festival, she said, with three of those days being the most important.
“The first day is called Dhanteras. Traditionally people go out and buy things because Dhanteras means wealth, so you bring new things into your house. The second day is Choti Diwali. This is where you pray in the evening. Every day we put out oil lamps called Diya. We put out oil lamps every day for the first three days. And then the third day is the big festival. In the evening we do Lakshmi puja (ceremony) and burst firecrackers.”
In Fairbanks Saturday night, after a prayer and a dance performance, a full Indian dinner was served that included chicken curry, chana masala, naan and more. Then it was on to a fashion show, and more dancing and singing, culminating in an open floor dance with a DJ. One of the highlights took place when, faced with an unexpected delay in the program, emcees Satyaki Das and Anusha Sankar taught the audience Bollywood dance moves, an unplanned addition that had everyone in the room laughing as they attempted to replicate the actions made famous in thousands of movies.
Every year, Namaste India reaches out to the community and involves others in the celebration. This was seen in one of the dance performances, where two local Fairbanks girls joined in, as well as in the show’s closure, a performance by the Tundra Caravan dance troupe. It was one of those quintessentially Fairbanks moments when Middle Eastern bellydance was part of a celebration of an Indian holiday in the heart of Alaska, reminding everyone as winter closes in that plenty of light shines in our diverse community, and that one needn’t be from India to celebrate it.