You can’t take the Diwali out of Indians—even when they’re in America

Just like back home.
Just like back home.
Image: AP Photo/Kevin Hagen
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Like food, fashion, and faith, Indians carry with them their beloved festivals wherever their livelihood takes them.

It’s no different in the US where people of Indian origin have been living since the 1820s.

Over the years, a growing Indian immigrant population has been celebrating Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, going all out to replicate the massive festivities from their motherland.

The scale of celebrations has become such that popular US tourist spots like Disneyland in California and New York’s Times Square get painted in vibrant Indian colours. Even the White House has been celebrating the festival for many years. After all, the 3.1 million Indian-Americans form one of the most successful immigrant communities in the US.

With Diwali just around the corner, localities with considerable presence of the diaspora have temporarily turned into Indian neighbourhoods, complete with lamps, lights, fairs, revellers, rituals, and upbeat spirits.

This year, Diwali falls on Nov. 07but the revelry begins much earlier in the US.

Stamp of tradition

Hindu temples in the US are a key point of convergence and focus during Diwali, with most Indians making it a point to pay obeisance to goddess Lakshmi.

But that’s only the beginning.

All over the country, wherever there is a sizeable Indian population, shops and boutiques selling Diwali knick-knacks do brisk business. Melas (fairs) are also a routine affair.

“We buy our diyas (oil-wick lamps), puja stuff, aarthi (prayer) books, and Indian sweets and snacks from local Indian stores,” said Neena Shah, a 48-year-old resident of Roslyn, Long Island, New York. ”Earlier, there would be pockets (of such stores) where Indians used to live, like in Flushing or Hicksville (in New York), but now there’s a Patel Brothers, an Usha Foods, or an Apna Bazaar in most places.” Some people even turn to Amazon and other online services for shopping.

What was even harder to find earlier was a priest for the puja rituals. But now, even that is getting streamlined thanks to technology. For instance, Bengaluru-based Puja N Pujari, which has presence in Texas in the US, allows users to book a priest. “At times, people have been duped and been charged a hefty amount of $500 (around Rs36,000) for a relatively simple Satyanarayan puja,” said Kalpaja Dalavoi, CEO and co-founder of Puja N Pujari. This exploitation peaks during Diwali, when demand goes up, she says.

In fact, many others now opt to do the puja themselves with the help of YouTube tutorials.

The long-held tradition of bursting crackers—a practice that’s now being discouraged in India because of environmental issues—has also made its way to the West. In some areas, communities take special permission from their local police chief to burst crackers on Diwali day.

Increasingly, several companies in the US are allowing employees to observe a religious holiday on Diwali. But still, a day’s off is not enough to travel to India to celebrate, so they’ve found alternatives.

Home away from home

For Indians who can’t experience the real deal in India, their next best bet is to bring Diwali to America.

“My parents haven’t gone back to India for Diwali for over 25 years,” said 24-year-old Raghav Mishra, a product manager at a health-tech company in New York city who grew up in Boston. “Since we don’t have a very large family in the US, it’s definitely a bit lonely in comparison to India.”

But that didn’t stop Mishra’s father from getting involved in organising small Diwali events in his Boston neighbourhood since the 1980s. And little did he know that two-and-a-half decades later, his American-born son would also help host such events: “When I was the president of Hindu Students Council at New York University, we held annual Diwali events for all students,” said Mishra.

What earlier used to be a small puja and small parties with friends and families has now found space in various communities. “In the last 10 years, the Indian population has really skyrocketed,” said Priya Das, a resident of Ashburn, Virginia. “For the Ganesha holiday a month or two ago, the Indian population had a huge festival and built a 30-foot statue of Lord Ganesh that was up for about a week.” In Das’s hometown, a Diwali function is held at her local school campus annually.

As smaller communities have rallied together, they have made way for bigger celebrations, too.

Surati’s Broadway-style Ramayana
Surati’s Broadway-style Ramayana
Image: Surati

For instance, in downtown Jersey City, non-profit Surati kicked off the festivities with a Broadway-style Ramayana in English on Oct. 20, performing with a multicultural cast from around the world, founder and artistic director Rimli Roy said. A street fair and an indoor celebration party also followed.

A non-profit Indian cultural organisation in Cary, North Carolina, called Hum Sub organises one of the biggest Diwali events in the region. The day-long celebration, sprinkled with performances from local community members as well as Indian celebrities, started nearly two decades ago in 2000 and is free to the general public. This year, it was held on Oct. 13 and singers Sadhana Sargam and Amit Sana of Indian Idol fame performed before close to 15,000 people.

But why are these events being held weeks before Diwali?

“Cary Diwali is an outdoor event,” said Prakash Punj, president of Hum Sub. “In November, it will be too cold for an outdoor event and also, the theatre, which can accommodate so many people, is hard to get.” Most such functions happen on the weekends around Diwali—basically whenever the date and weather are convenient for both the organisers and attendees.

So, away from their country, Indians in America continue to celebrate the biggest Hindu festival—even if they do play by slightly different rules.