by LAUREN CODLING
FAITH leaders have revealed efforts to engage with members of the community during Diwali festivities, following the government announcement of a four-week lockdown across England from Thursday (5).
Under the new rules, all places of worship will have to close for the duration unless they are being used for private prayer or to broadcast acts of worship. In addition, households are not permitted to mix during the lockdown.
For Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, this means celebrations and interactions with loved ones will be restricted during Diwali. The festival of lights is due to take place from next Thursday (12) to November 16.
Despite the guidelines, places of worship are keen to ensure that they keep followers engaged and connected in times of need. P Yogvivek Swami is head saint at the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, north London, which draws about 40,000 devotees during the festive period. He emphasised the strength of unity in light of the new lockdown restrictions.
“The measures will naturally impact Hindu households due to restrictions on social gatherings,” he said. “However, we are all in this together. It is both a civic duty as well as a religious responsibility to
play our part if we are to overcome the virus.”
Instead of its traditional celebration, the temple will webcast specific events throughout the festive period to help families celebrate Diwali at home.
Tarun Patel, a volunteer at the temple, said they had been approached by people of all faiths in the run-up to Diwali. Many have contacted the temple, Patel said, to voice their enthusiasm for the upcoming virtual events. “People from all backgrounds are excited to tune into the celebration that Neasden Temple is going to transmit over Diwali,” he told Eastern Eye. “I think that’s a really great message to people – it’s a very encompassing faith and Diwali is a testament to that.”
Patel said he was “extremely confident” that members would still have a sense of community spirit, despite the restrictions on the usual Diwali celebrations. “Normally, we would have tens of thousands of people coming to the temple, offering their prayers,” he explained. “As a substitute, people will be doing it in their own homes, but they are really looking forward to it.”
However, he noted it would be “tough” for families and friends to be separated during Diwali festivities. “It is tough for (people’s) mental wellbeing, but I think this festival will provide that breath of fresh air and a bit of joy will come into people’s lives,” he said.
In Birmingham, the Balaji Temple emphasised its sense of community spirit despite the new restrictions. Dr S Kanagaratnam, chairman of the temple, said there was “no shortage of enthusiasm to engage and celebrate Diwali”.
“Everyone is in a celebratory mood,” he told Eastern Eye. “Naturally, the extent to which we can lay on the programme will be limited this year, but we have done everything possible to celebrate Diwali safely within the constraints. We believe that where there is a will, there is a way.”
In normal circumstances, Kanagaratnam explained, school children would have participated in a variety of cultural programmes in the community hall. This would have been followed by a ‘peace procession’ in and around the temple, with people carrying two lamps, to symbolise Diwali’s message of light over darkness and the victory of good over evil.
However, all events have been curtailed this year due to the new restrictions. Although devotees can still attend private prayers, the temple cannot offer physical services directly to them. Leaders have also decided to webcast Lakshmi Puja, on the main festive day of Diwali next Saturday (14), for the benefit of devotees.
“It is a testing time for all of us,” he said. “The restrictions were imposed as a consequence to the all pervading invisible demon, the Covid-19 virus, chasing after every human on the planet. The universal villain needs to be annihilated. For some communities, Diwali is the celebration of the killing of the demon. We are all together in it and we will endeavour to win the battle.”
Meanwhile, some members of the Sikh community are preparing for Bandi Chhor Divas. Coinciding with the day of Diwali, the Sikh holiday takes place next Saturday. The festival is known as the ‘celebration of freedom’, commemorating the release from prison and return to Amritsar of the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, in 1619.
Deep Kaur is a volunteer at GMG Gurdwara in Slough, Berkshire. Speaking to Eastern Eye, she said the Sikh temple would usually have an extensive programme of events. Instead, the congregation have worked to set up a number of virtual events, including the release of a short animation film explaining the significance of Bandi Chhor Divas.
It has also set up the Free Food Support programme, which was initially implemented during the first lockdown in March. It has worked with over 113 charities and delivered more than one million meals and redistributed over 450 tonnes of food. The programme is due to continue in light of the second lockdown.
“As we’re not celebrating in the way that we would have this time last year, the gurdwara is doing all that we can during these difficult times,” she explained. “We are just being productive, and still trying to bring communities together in a very different way. Our efforts won’t be dampened by the fact we have such restrictions put upon us.”
Although Kaur admitted there was a “sense of sadness” that the gurdwara could not celebrate in its usual fashion, she was keen to emphasise the positive attitude of its members. “It’s our job to be proactive, to be positive and to do the best that we can with whatever we’re dealt with,” she explained. “And that’s just a Sikh way – you stand up, you help, you serve, and you just keep moving forward. There’s no sense of defeat.”