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Lights, Bhangra, Pujan: A Guide to Divali in London

Photo credit: Bhavit Mehta

Jonathan Galton, BA Social Anthropology

Trafalgar Square, October 13th: The monkey god Hanuman treads carefully round the fountain’s edge, slightly elevated from the throngs watching Bollywood dancers on the stage or queuing for hot samosas at one of the food stands. Elsewhere, you can find stalls offering jewellery, handicrafts and money transfer services and the trademark blue of sponsors Lebara Mobile’s logo can be seen everywhere. This is “Divali on Trafalgar Square”, now in its 13th year and one of the UK’s biggest Divali celebrations, unofficial estimates putting the day’s footfall at over 35,000.

Divali (celebrated October 23rd 2014) is probably the most well-known festival in the Hindu calendar, but its significance eludes many. Some say it is the festival of light (indeed, the name derives from the Sanskrit dīpāvali meaning “row of lights”), others that it celebrates the return of Lord Rama to reclaim his birthplace Ayodhya after vanquishing the demon Ravana. Yet others claim that it is the best time to propitiate Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth. In keeping with the exuberant pluralism that characterises the Hindu faith, Divali is in fact all of these things, and the diversity of London’s South Asian community ensures that the festival’s multiple facets are kept alive and well in the capital.

At heart, Divali is a family affair celebrated in the home, but those without access to a Hindu household can enjoy a range of events across London. The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, one of Europe’s largest Hindu temples, offers chodpa pujan (blessing of account books) all day on Thursday 23rd October, with hot snacks and a nearby fireworks display in the evening. The following day, Hindu New Year, will see further prayers and a mountain of food or annakut (representing Krishna’s lifting of a mountain to save its people from flooding). Both events are free and open to all.

Similar celebrations can be found at other temples including a dance and drama performance (2-6pm) at Bhaktivedanta Manor, Wembley-based headquarters of the UK Hare Krishna movement, on October 26th and a free musical programme the previous evening (7-8.45pm) at the Brahma Kumaris Global Co-operation Centre at 65-69 Pound Lane, Willesden. Moreover, Divali is not exclusive to Hinduism. In the Jain faith it commemorates spiritual leader Lord Mahavira’s moksha (release from the reincarnation cycle), and the Shree Mahavirswami Jain Temple, (1 The Broadway, Wealdstone) is hosting a day programme of talks, prayers and quizzes on October 25th. Meanwhile, for Sikhs, Divali is celebrated as Bandi Chhor Diwas, the liberation of the sixth Guru, Har Gobind Ji, and gurdwaras in Southall and elsewhere are worth investigating.

Those wishing to get to grips with stories behind Divali could do worse than head to the East End’s Rich Mix (35-47 Bethnal Green Road) where British Asian poet Daljit Nagra will perform his “Ramayana: A Retelling”, a quirky take on the Hindu epic, on October 23rd. Sadly, Vayu Naidu, doyenne of Britain’s Indian story-tellers will have already performed at the Crossing, but Dishoom, the restaurant hosting the event, may still lure bon vivants to its Shoreditch and Covent Garden outlets with Divali specials served until October 26th, including Chilli Garlic Crab. Other restaurants with special Divali menus include upmarket Veeraswamy on Regent Street whose menu features rose-infused lamb shanks and lobster curry, and Trishna in Marylebone which offers vegetarian and “feast” options.

If ritzy restaurants aren’t your thing, and the temples of north west London are just too much of a trek, fear not – Divali is coming to SOAS this Friday in the form of a Bollywood party in the JCR starting 8pm! Meanwhile keep your eyes peeled for further information on the annual JCR Divali Party hosted by the Hindu Society in collaboration with Bhangra Soc, Indian Soc and Tamil Soc. Last year’s celebration featured music, food, diyas (lamps) and fireworks and this year looks set to continue the trend. Arguably, though, this is a just a warm-up for the hottest event on the London Hindu student calendar – a grand Divali ball hosted in conjunction with a range of other institutions (including LSE) on December 3rd. Tickets for “Divia” go on sale in the next few weeks, and rumours of celebrity appearances and three course meals are already circulating…
However and wherever you decide to celebrate, a very Happy Divali from the SOAS Spirit.

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