Island Indian community celebrates Diwali with joy

Women perform a dance at Saturday
Women perform a dance at Saturday's Diwali festival at MI Presbyterian Church.
— image credit: Claes-Fredrik Mannby, Special to the Reporter

Hundreds ate, mingled and danced in colorful garb Saturday night at the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church. It was a celebration of Diwali, the festival of lights, which this year fell on Nov. 3.

“It’s the triumph of good over evil,” explained Shaarika Kaul, dressed in a sapphire gown. The Mercer Island High School student had earlier that evening performed her own rendition of a Bollywood dance.

Diwali is for India what Christmas is for America. The Hindu festival is celebrated almost universally in India, where the five-day jubilee signals the beginning of the holiday season.

There are different legends pointing to the origin of Diwali, which translates roughly into “row of lights.” In one, many years ago a prince named Shri Ram was exiled from his father’s kingdom. In the 14 years he was away, his wife was kidnapped by an evil demon king. To rescue her, Shri Ram waged war. Upon his safe return, the people of Ayodhaya decorated their homes and city with diyas, or oil lamps.

Throughout the church dining hall, paper cutouts of the lamps dotted the walls, wicks jutting from small clay bowls.

Specific customs depend on the region but several traditions anchor the festival, like puja, a prayer followed by the lighting of diyas. Families clean their homes and yards, decorating entrances and walls with rangoli patterns and garlands of marigold.

“A lot of Indian customs are synonymous with life,” explained Vaishali Kukreja, a member of the Mercer Island South Asian Community (MISAC), which coordinated Saturday’s festivities. “Like a spring cleaning, you clean out your home and pray to the goddess of wealth with the hope that she will come and give you prosperity.”

MISAC began hosting the Island’s own Diwali six years ago with the hope of engaging Eastside families and incorporating kids into a tradition they may not otherwise grow up with stateside.

The event quickly gained in popularity. Anjali Grover, also a member of MISAC estimates that more than 300 people attended Saturday’s festivities.

“For me, I didn’t know many Indians here before moving to Mercer Island,” said Kukreja. “I moved two years ago and then suddenly I had this large, 300-person community.”

According to the most recent Census data, about 16 percent of Mercer Island’s population is Asian. And Grover estimates that the majority of MISAC members are from the Island.

The event went late into the night. Between performances choreographed by members of the community, kids scampered between tables and guests munched on treats like gulab jamin, a flour dumpling soaked in a light syrup.

“It’s really about having a good time,” said Kaul. “It’s a chance to reflect on what you’re grateful for. I always love the performances and the chance to get together as a community.”


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