By: RITHIKA SIDDHARTHA
HINDU, Jain and Sikh families across the UK are preparing to celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights, which falls on November 4 this year.
London and Leicester kicked off celebrations last weekend, as people gathered in the capital last Saturday (23) for Diwali on the Square, with a light display, arts and crafts and vegetarian food stalls for revellers to enjoy.
Pre-Covid, the Trafalgar Square event attracted up to 35,000 people, although the numbers were understandably fewer last weekend.
London mayor Sadiq Khan said, “Our experiences over the past 18 months have reinforced the importance of the themes at the heart of Diwali – the symbolic victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and good over evil.
“The spirit of this vibrant festival brings us all together and embodies the diverse and welcoming spirit of our great city.
“As our communities come together to share hospitality and remember the story of Rama and Sita, I am delighted to welcome the return of Diwali festivities in Trafalgar Square.
“I want to send my warmest wishes to all those celebrating Diwali, the festival of lights, in London and around the world.
“From my family to yours, I wish everyone a happy Diwali.”
There was entertainment on the big screen, including dance and song performances, yoga, cookery demonstrations and storytelling from the Ramayana.
Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid reminisced about Diwali while growing up in Bristol. Writing in this week’s Eastern Eye, he said, “Even though my family didn’t celebrate it, I learned a lot about Diwali growing up and saw how much it means to people.
“From the kids bringing halwa and jalebi to the playground, to the decorations at Dr Gandhi’s clinic on Bristol’s Stapleton Road, it was always a point of light at a dark time of year.
“It speaks to how far we’ve come as a country that so many of us, regardless of our faith, can relate to the messages of Diwali: the triumph of light over darkness and the power of knowledge over ignorance.”
Festivities were launched last weekend in Leicester, which sees the biggest celebration in the UK, while at the BAPS Swaminarayan temple in Neasden, north London, preparations are on to celebrate Diwali and the Hindu New Year.
Head saint Yogvivekdas Swami said, “Diwali is one of the most vibrant and meaningful festivals in the Hindu calendar for millions around the world.
“The dispelling of darkness with light symbolises the triumph of good over evil. As the world continues to grapple with the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, Diwali’s enlightening messages of faith, hope, goodness and community are needed more than ever.
“The past 20 months have been a challenging time for all of us, and while we are immensely grateful for and indebted to our medical experts and keyworkers for all that they have done to keep us safe, we are not yet fully out of the pandemic. We urge everyone celebrating Diwali to be especially careful and follow the Covid-19 safety guidance issued by the NHS.
“Diwali is indeed a time for charity and goodwill. In this current situation, one of
the greatest acts of public good we can all do is to get vaccinated and received the booster jab when offered to us. This will help ensure that we are not only keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe, but everyone in our community – especially as family and friends unite to celebrate the joyous traditions of Diwali. Let us all celebrate Diwali safely and responsibly.”
In India, leading spiritual leader, His Holiness (HH) Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, of Parmarth Niketan ashram in Rishikesh, told Eastern Eye, “This Diwali, as we light the lamps of celebration, lamps of love and lamps of devotion, we also remain deeply aware of the tragic pandemic that is still in our midst.
“So many of us have lost loved ones, lost our jobs, lost our sense of security. Many have contracted Covid and may still be suffering long-term effects.
“At Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh, on the holy banks of Mother Ganga, we have been having daily special sacred yagna ceremonies to pray for everyone, all of our global family.”
A spokesperson for the BAPS Neasden temple in London said the festival will be celebrated from November 4 to 7 with devotees able to visit the temple in a Covid-safe manner.
Prayers will be offered and shown online. A highlight of the celebration is the annakut display, literally, a ‘mountain of food’, an artistically arranged offering of the first meal of the New Year in thanksgiving to the Almighty. The annakut will be on display inside the temple shrines across four days to allow smaller crowds and maintain social distancing.
All staff volunteers and visitors are advised to wear masks or face coverings at all times while indoor, the temple said.
Visitors will also be encouraged to maintain at least one metre distance from others where possible, unless they are within their family bubble.
“We encourage everyone to have home tests prior to visiting or volunteering at the mandir,” the spokesperson said.
There will be hand sanitisers, adequate ventilation and visitors will be asked to move in one direction to minimise the risk of exposure to infection.
While the large prayer hall could seat more 2,000 people before the pandemic, this year, under Covid-safe measures, that will be reduced to accommodate only 1,000 people at a time.
The Bhaktivedanta Manor in Watford also attracts large number of visitors during Diwali. Visakha Dasi explained the significance of the festival: “As diyas are lit in homes and temples, we envision their light dispelling the darkness of negativity, fear, frustration and materialism that resides within all of us and especially following very challenging times. The goal of spiritual culture is for us to control our lower passions – to overcome our dark material propensities toward lust, greed, anger and envy – and to come to the light of goodness, characterised by knowledge, satisfaction, sense control, and peace.
“We wish to let good qualities and excellent behaviour reign supreme and take precedence in every thought we have and act we do; to advance steadily in disentangling ourselves from material ambition and maturing spiritually and to acquire a taste for genuine spiritual life.
“Let us also become enlightened and always seek transcendental understanding. It is this understanding – transcendental understanding – that will solace, shelter, and eventually carry us to our Lords, Sri Sri Sita Rama, Laksmana and Hanuman.”
Narendra Thakrar of Wembley’s Sanatan Hindu Mandir said Diwali celebrations will be a low-key affair at the temple this time because of the pandemic.
As the fear of the virus persists, there could be fewer footfalls, he said. Prior to the pandemic, some 7,000-9,000 would visit the temple during the festival; however, this year around 4,000 devotees are expected at attend. Thakrar said the temple will remain open for a few hours beyond the usual closing time and devotees will be encouraged to wear masks and maintain social distancing.
A couple of MPs may be invited to the festival, he said, adding that there will be a special puja on the Hindu new year day.
Leicester, whose celebrations outside India are said to be the largest, kicked off festivities last weekend with the Diwali lights switch-on. Lights along Leicester’s “Golden Mile” are usually turned on two weeks before the Diwali day. There were fewer people gathered last weekend on the city’s Belgrave Road.
Leicester City Council said people were asked to take tests to show they did not have a Covid-19 infection. Measures were in place to discourage people gathering at one place at the same time.
A stage which usually would show music and dance performances was replaced with three big screens, which displayed a pre-recorded cultural programme. A “fire garden” in Cossington Park, off Belgrave Road, replaced the usual fireworks show.
Event manager Theo Crew said: “In the past we have had 45,000 people on the site at any one time, which is a high-density crowd, so this year we have created more spaces and more screens for people to spread out. We wanted to allow everyone to come along and celebrate safely.”
The city council said the same measures would be in place for the Diwali festivities on November 4. People welcomed Leicester City Council’s decision to press ahead with the annual Diwali celebrations.
A majority of respondents to a survey on social media said the city council was right to provide some cheer for city residents after pandemic last year.
Deputy city mayor for culture, councillor Piara Singh Clair said, “We were determined to do all we could to bring the Diwali celebrations back to the streets of Leicester this year, while making public safety our priority, so I’m delighted that we’ve been able to do so. The new format of the event, using the three giant screens, means that people won’t need to congregate in the same space at the same time, as they have in previous years.
“By running the programme three times, we hope we can encourage people to join the celebrations at different times throughout the evening, without missing out on any of the fun. It should be a fantastic evening and I’d like to wish everyone a very happy Diwali!”
At the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Southall in west London, organisers said they were looking forward to being able to celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas. “Both our gurdwaras will have a full day of services (3 am to 10 pm), consisting of kirtan (hymn singing) and katha (discourses),” an organiser told Eastern Eye.
They added, “We will be discouraging use of fireworks for the negative impact they have on the environment. There will be no cap on the number of people visiting the place of worship and all the gurdwara’s services will be broadcast live on their YouTube pages, the organiser added.
In Birmingham, the festival of lights will be marked at the Midland Arts Centre (MAC), which will host a special event featuring Indian classical and folk dance performances on November 6.
Yogvivekdas Swami said, “On behalf of everyone at the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha and Neasden temple, we wish the readers and staff of Asian Media Group a shubh Deepavali and a safe and successful New Year ahead.”
BAPS festivities online
DIWALI celebrations at the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, north London, on November 4 will include ‘Chopda Pujan’, when new account books are (symbolically) opened and which will be webcast live at neasdentemple.org
To mark the start of the Hindu New Year, the first online arti will begin at 5.30 am, followed by prayers for world peace, harmony, protection and well-being, a spokesperson said.
The annakut thal and Govardhan pujan will also be shown online, at 8.45am, followed by the ceremonial raj bhog arti at 9.15am and will include the offering of the annakut.
There will be a ceremonial raj bhog arti at midday and will include the offering of the annakut –literally, ‘mountain of food’ – artistically arranged as the first meal of the New Year and offered to the Almighty in thanksgiving.
A series of special programmes will be streamed live across the UK and Europe from the YouTube channel, ‘BAPS UK & Europe’. More information can be found on the website neasdentemple.org.