Published On: Sun, Oct 23rd, 2016

Those lights down the block may be for Diwali, not Christmas

In a new Maple Grove development, Shefali Chahal and her husband Dharminder Kumar recently put up what appeared to their neighbors to be Christmas lights.

“People stopped by that were driving on our street,” Chahal said, and would ask, “Why are your lights going up so early? Because it’s our festival season that is already kicked in. … so we explained it to a number of people, and I think most of them finally got it.”

The festival is Diwali, an ancient celebration that’s one of the biggest and most important holidays in Hindu tradition. Indian-Americans will gather this Saturday at the Minneapolis Convention Center for their annual Diwali Festival.

Kumar explained that “normally, people start celebrating, go into the Diwali mood, a couple of weeks before. There’s going to be dances, good food, socializing with each other.”

Chahal and Kumar are from Chandigarh, in northern India. They came to Minnesota for work more than 18 years ago. Both work in IT. Their son Harshil, a senior at the University of Minnesota, will soon be home for Diwali too.

Shefali Chalal
Shefali Chalal says traditional Indian clay pots are harder to find in Minnesota so many families fill the inside of their homes with tealight candles. Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

This five-day holiday, known in the West as the Festival of Lights, is a time when vegetarian meals are offered to gods and goddesses, gifts are exchanged and Indian sweets such as kaju katli — or cashew, milk and sugar bars — are eaten in abundance.

The most popular Indian sweet is called Motichoor Laddoo, made of garbanzo bean flour, cardamom, pistachio and saffron. Generations of Indian families have eaten those sweets. And most have also been taught that a clean house, beaming inside with clay lamps, and a home filled with aromatic meals will attract Sri Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and love.

Kumar explained, “On this day, Goddess Lakshmi, she takes a full trip of earth, and obviously would prefer to go to a house which is neat and clean.”

And brightly lit. That’s why holiday lights cover the front porch. “So that Goddess Lakshmi does not miss our house, the brightest house, and he says, ‘Oh that’s Kumar’s house, I need to go there,” he said, laughing.

Kumar’s favorite part of the holiday, though, isn’t the food or the puja — that’s the evening Hindu prayer ceremony. He loves the fireworks, which he and other Indians call “crackers.”

“We used to make multiple trips to the market, you know. Go and see which vendor has got which specific type of crackers,” Kumar said. “So that was kind of the excitement, the fireworks. Diwali was always the festival that I waited for all year, you know.”

Chahal said it’s also exciting to go to the temple, “to see everyone dressed up, because we know everybody will be wearing beautiful outfits, with all their beautiful jewelry. It’s just a lot of excitement around this time.”

Akshaya Panda
Akshaya Panda, president of the Hindu Society of Minnesota, says Indian Minnesotans can celebrate Diwali at both the Minneapolis Convention center, and at its temple in Maple Grove, on October 30. Doualy Xaykaothao | MPR News

Just a few miles from their home, on 80 acres of land, is the Hindu Temple of Minnesota, nestled amid cornfields. Inside, Indian-Americans are praying on granite floors surrounded by Hindu deities.

Akshaya Panda, president of the Hindu Society of Minnesota, said the temple will host its own Diwali celebration and puja on Oct. 30, the day on which Diwali falls this year.

“Diwali goes beyond the boundaries of color, caste, race and religion. It is a celebration of love, peace and harmony,” Panda said. “It spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair.”

This year’s cultural show at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Saturday will showcase the different ways Diwali is celebrated across India.

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