For the Native American community in Utah, the Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in southern Jordan is more than a religious shrine.
This is where older members of the community scattered throughout the Salt Lake Valley reconnect with their Indian roots and where members of the second generation find their Indian identity. This is where old and young celebrate by dressing in embroidered dresses and silk tunics and donning their deities in similar adornments to reflect the divinity within us all.
And next week, the temple will be bathed in wonder as 500-700 Hindus (instead of the usual 2,000) gather for their first – and most important – post-pandemic party of the year: Diwali.
Tradition celebrates triumph of light over darkness, says temple president Balaji Sudabattula, and if you see COVID-19 as darkness, getting together again will be a real victory.
âWe have been stuck in our homes for so long. It’s a big dealâ¦ more sacred this year than many other years, âsays Sudabattula. âIt shows the light of the end of the pandemic. “
There will always be restrictions, he said, even though temple officials have determined, through an informal investigation, that the vast majority of the 9,000 Hindus living in Utah have been vaccinated.
This number is so high, he explains, as many Indian newcomers have arrived in the past two years, as the virus has “forced some immigration [of Hindus] from California. “
During Diwali, which runs from November 2-4, masks will be required inside the temple, and only 70 at a time can be in the space that would normally accommodate hundreds. Others may congregate outside in the parking lot to mingle.
“The temple”, says Gopika Kamtekar, a member of the temple council, “can be a place where people come and feel safe.”
She is delighted to see “a little normalcy returning,” said Kamtekar, who lost her father in India to the epidemic and was unable to make it, “and to bring back hope for better times to come “.
Linking the generations
When India-born Kamtekar moved to Beehive State over two decades ago, the Hindu temple and community helped her introduce her children to the traditions of her homeland.
It was the only way to connect her daughter, now 20, and her son, now 16, “to their culture,” she says, and “to keep them attached.”
The temple had the same purpose for Sahana Kargi, a 20-year-old student at the University of Utah.
âIt’s great to have this vacation, which is a great time to meet people who are all Indians, people who are like you,â says Kargi. “You don’t feel like you belong.”
His family, originally from southern India, first moved to Boise, where there wasn’t much Indian community or a big Diwali holiday, then moved 10 years ago to Utah. .
Soon Kargi’s mother started a class in her basement, teaching young children, including her daughter, the art of Indian classical dance.
It is called “Bharatanatyam”, which breaks down into “bhavam” or facial expressions; “Ragam” or music; and “talam”, or rhythmic movements.
Dancers wear ankle bells, which help emphasize the rhythms, she says, much like tap dancing.
âDancing is how young children learn Hindu mythology,â says Kargi. “It is a very spiritual exercise.”
By practicing Bharatanatyam, the young American Indian has formed “an indestructible bond with my homeland,” she wrote in an academic essay.
During her teenage years, however, Kargi tried to blend in with her American neighbors, downplaying her family’s South Asian origins.
âInstead of being proud of the qualities that made me unique, I resented them,â she wrote. “In recent years, however, I have had enough confidence not to shy away from my heritage.”
Even in the Hindu community, Kargi felt challenged and wondered if her Indian self was good enough. She has lost confidence in her abilities.
Through it all, dancing saved her.
âBharatanatyam continues to shape my life in different ways,â she wrote. “When I was asked about my inheritance, Bharatanatyam was there to help me, and when others questioned me, I used Bharatanatyam to prove them wrong.”
That trust and identity will be fully on display, Kargi said during next week’s Diwali.
“It’s nice to know that even though I can’t visit my grandparents,” said the young math major, “they can still share this holiday and these traditions with us.”
Connect the world
Diwali is one of the Pan-Indian Hindu festivals celebrated in almost every cultural tradition in India from north to south and east to west, says Indra Neelameggham, a longtime temple member.
British Airways has organized Diwali dances at Heathrow Airport, and Times Square in New York has “the biggest celebration of Diwali outside of India,” she said, “with a gala of songs, dances , lights, Bollywood personalities, Indian food and merchandise. “
In Diwali, which is derived from the Sanskrit word for ârow of lights,â says Neelameggham, Hindus decorate homes, streets, and businesses with rows of oil lamps or string lights.
It also includes prayers to the goddess Lakshmi, the patron deity of good fortune and wealth, she says, “that she may grant success and prosperity to all.”
During the commemoration, believers visit friends and family and âseek the blessings of the elderly,â says Neelameggham. âThe traders keep their books of account, settle their obligations and open new accounts on a new book. The children receive new clothes, bundles of money and lots of candy as gifts. Families exchange gifts and traditional Indian treats.
Several colorful Indian myths are linked to the festival, says Neelameggham. âIn northern India, the most popular story is that Diwali is to welcome Prince Rama to his home, who saved his beloved wife, Sita, after defeating the wicked King Ravana, who kidnapped her. . In southern India, the story is about Krishna and his wife, Satya, who together fought and defeated Narakasura, the evil personification of plagues, disease, suffering and poverty.
Diwali is also of particular importance, she says, for people of other faiths such as Sikhs and Jains.
For his part, Neelameggham hopes this year’s Diwali “will bring us the blessing to defeat the evil COVID plague that has plagued the world.”