Rediscovering Diwali in America: Indo Guyanese celebrations

Indo-Guyanese Diwali in New York. Photo: videograb from YouTube

While a look back in time brings memories of happy and joyful Diwali celebrations for the Indian Americans, and a realization that the large and all-encompassing celebrations of those days are over as are their childhoods and young days, once they have adopted the U.S. as their homes, Diwali celebrations have been rediscovered for the Hindu Indo-Guyanese community in the U.S.. Diwali has been declared a national holiday in Guyana after Independence.  Before 1966, the British did not recognize the festival in the then British Guyana.  Diwali celebrations were tamed and simple, only limited to temples in Guyana, according to some Guyanese.  In the U.S., however, the community has, of late, expanded it to five-day public celebrations with lights and prayers and firecrackers and food.

“In Guyana, we celebrated Diwali by going to the temple,” says Sandra Ramnaryan.  “We were close to 750,000 people of Indian descent.  Although most villages had temples, other resources which could help promote our cultural traditions were limited,” Ramnaryan said.  “Not speaking an Indian language was one major contributor to following those traditions,” she explained, continuing, “We were not taught Hindi.  We had no idea of how to read Sanskrit.  Temples were our main sources of getting in touch with our roots, our culture.  The priests at the temples used to teach us how to read the ‘shlokas’ with correct pronunciation.”   “So the festival was confined to our homes and our temples,” she added.

She remembered Diwali was celebrated as a two-day festival, Diwali eve, or the fourteenth day and Diwali, the fifteenth day.  Most of the celebration was limited to prayers and lighting lamps at home, according to her.  “We used to light one single lamp on Diwali eve, and many more and placed them on the window sills, on steps and path ways in the yard of our homes on Diwali night,” she said.  She has memories of dressing up and going to the temple where Diwali’s presence could be felt.  ‘Prasad’ was also distributed at the temple.  At home, unlike Indian Diwali, food was not a big part of that celebration.  “We fasted on Diwali, or abstained from meat,” she said.  She does not remember the Indian traditional touching the feet of elders in respect and being given a gift of money or boxes of sweets to each other being practiced in Guyana as part of Diwali celebrations.

“It is here in the U.S. that we began celebrating Diwali on a grander scale,” Ramnarayan said.  “We had a larger and stronger community feeling, and more temples and more resources,” she informed.  “Here we celebrate it really well.  We do dress up and hold other accompanying celebrations on Diwali here.  And we still abstain from meat during Diwali,” she said.

As expressed by Ramnaryan, Diwali is celebrated on a large scale in the Guyanese community in the last few years.  In New York, the area of Richmond Hill is the commercial center of Indo-Guyanese community, just like Jackson Heights is the commercial center for Indian community.  All kinds of shops and restaurants and temples are located in the area.  Diwali has become a five-day festival here for the Hindu Guyanese.  Diwali lights have become a part of the shops and businesses on Liberty Avenue, while the street vendors sell symbolic Diwali items such as ‘deeyas’ or clay lamps, and other items used in the ‘puja’.  The tradition of lighting ‘deeyas’ at home continues ending in lighting of ‘deeyas’ at the temples, after the evening ‘aarati’ or prayers.  The community has also been praying to the Goddess Lakshmi, and the temples hold elaborate ceremonies, authentically Vedic since the community goes back to the original Sanskrit scriptures and Vedic traditions for reconnecting to their cultural heritage.  ‘Bhojan’ or dinner follows the prayers on Diwali day, which concludes the ‘fast’ or abstinence from meat.  The community also observes the day after Diwali as ‘Gobardhan Puja’ day and special prayers and celebrations are held in the temples visited by thousands.  A festive parade is part of the public celebrations of Diwali, with symbolic floats, and has been an annual event.  A music concert and performances by children in costumes representing the culture are also part of the annual celebrations.

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