If you’ve already seen lights strung up outside homes in your neighborhood, don’t assume that they’re indicative of families getting a jump-start on Christmas revelry.
Oct. 26 is Diwali, often referred to as a “festival of lights” because Hindus hang lines of oil lamps called diyas outside their homes and businesses. This festive occasion is the most important date on the Hindu calendar, and Fairfax’s growing Indian community has already been gearing up for it for weeks.
“Lights should be everywhere — in your home and in your heart,” said Muralidhara Bhatta, a priest at the Durga Temple, one of the largest and oldest Hindu temples in Fairfax County. “You should see the light and it should get rid of the darkness, inside of our hearts, inside of our minds, everywhere it should get rid of darkness and ignorance and bring in intellect and light in our life.”
Diwali celebrations in Fairfax County have become more visible in recent years as Indians have become the county’s second-largest minority group, with 43,956 residents, according to the 2010 census. That figure represents a stunning 71 percent increase over the last decade. Indian immigrants say the county’s major drawing cards are proximity to IT jobs, quality public schools and a well-established Indian community.
Indian immigrants to the U.S. tend to be highly educated and successful. An April 2011 Center for Immigration Studies report on welfare use by immigrant households with children revealed that just 18 percent of Indian immigrants used some welfare program in the past year, compared to a 56 percent overall rate for immigrants. Only immigrants from the United Kingdom were less likely to use a welfare program.
The many notable Indian-American success stories in the region include a pair of 37-year olds: Rajiv Shah, the administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Vivek Kundra, who was the U.S.’s first chief information officer; as well as Herndon Town Council member Jasbinder Singh, and a host of others.
If your knowledge of this fast-growing community doesn’t expand much past brief conversations with sub-continental call-center employees, consider making a visit to one of the county’s temples on Diwali to get a taste of the culture and perhaps a deeper understanding of a cherished Hindu holiday.
Three of Fairfax’s largest Hindu temples are the Durga Temple, at 8400 Durga Place in Fairfax Station; the Sri Venkateswara Lotus Temple at 12501 Braddock Road in Fairfax; and the Rajdhani Mandir, at 4525 Pleasant Valley Road, in Chantilly. Each will offer special Diwali services and festivities on the evening of Oct. 26 and non-Hindus are encouraged to attend.
Much like St. Patrick’s Day, Diwali, which means “rows of lighted lamps” in Hindi, isn’t celebrated on just one day. It’s officially a five-day festival, but area Hindus kicked off the Diwali season on Oct. 8 in a large festival at FedEx Field in Landover. Next Wednesday, the Durga Temple and others will celebrate Lakshmi Puja starting at 6.30 p.m.
“Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, so people worship this for health, wealth and prosperity, so we exchange greetings and sweets with family and friends,” said Muralidhara Bhatta, who moved to Lorton ten years ago from Bangalore.
Many Indians leave their doors and windows open during Diwali in the hopes that Lakshmi will fly in and bring them good fortune. Other Diwali traditions vary between different regions in India, but it is generally known as a celebration of the victory of good, in this case, the god Rama, over evil, represented by the demon Ravana.
“It’s just like our Christmas,” said Alok Srivastava, a computer scientist originally from near Delhi who is the president of the Association of United Hindu and Jain Temples of the Washington, D.C., metro area. “But it’s also a celebration of the last harvest of the year.”
Indian children look forward to the holiday in the same way that American youngsters look forward to Christmas. Presents, money and sweets are exchanged and nearly everyone buys a new outfit for the occasion. In southern India, fireworks begin before dawn, and in the north, they’re usually lit at night.
“On Diwali, we wake up early, get a nice oil bath and then we are blessed by the older people in our family before sitting down in a line of decorated chairs,” said Radha Iyer, a Chantilly resident who moved to the area from south India sixteen years ago. “Then it’s temple visits and friends and family visiting each other and also giving to the needy, so it’s a nice family holiday.”
If good food, fireworks and camaraderie aren’t enough to peak your interest, you could also turn up to pray for your favorite sports team.
“It can help sports teams, sure,” said Bhatta. “If the Redskins needed help and believe in what we believe, it might help them. But the beauty is that you don’t have to convert; there is no official conversion in Hinduism. Those who have faith in what we believe can feel our energy and they will succeed in everything they are doing.”