– UMSL students celebrate Festival of Lights with traditional Diwali dinner hosted by Indian Student Association.
PHOTO: (left to right) Sonam Pujji, Varun Bhan and Daman Singh at the ISA Diwali dinner. Photo by Heather Welborn for The Current 2013 ©


By Heather Welborn, Features Editor for The Current

The Indian Student Association hosted a Diwali dinner at UMSL on November 9. Photo by Heather Welborn for The Current 2013 (c)

The Indian Student Association hosted a well-attended Diwali dinner on November 9 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights, is the most important festival in Hindu culture. Students dined on traditional Indian dishes as they learned more about the history of the holiday.

Each table was filled with guests snacking on a traditional Indian dish of rice puffs, nuts, and spicy aromatics. Flameless candles and multicolored lights lined the tables and stage where ISA members shared the history and practices associated with Diwali. A small altar was erected near the stage, bearing candles, flowers, and an image of a many-armed Hindu goddess. A brief lecture was presented, covering the significance of the event in eastern culture.

Diwali is a five-day celebration officially observed in numerous eastern countries, from India to Fiji. The festival follows the lunar Hindu calendar, and takes place at different times each year, between mid-October and November. Numerous eastern religions celebrate Diwali, including Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists. Each religion attaches its own spiritual narrative to the festival, and celebrates the story behind the observance.

In Hindu cultures, Diwali marks the return of Rama, the seventh avatar of the God Vishnu, from fourteen years of exile. To welcome his return, clay lamps are lit to guide his path. For Jains, Diwali is when Lord Mahavira attained nirvana in 527 BC. In Sikh culture, Diwali celebrates the release from prison of the sixth guru, Hargobind, and fifty-two other princes with him in 1619.

The informative speech was followed by an in-depth look at traditional Hindu dance. Dance is regarded as the song of the body, and is used as an expression of personal spiritual experience. Yoga is an integral part of eastern dancing, and adds a holistic benefit to dancing with its focus on isolated movements, visualization, and intentional breathing. Much emphasis is placed on movement of the neck, eyes and hands, with bare feet stomping in a specific fashion to emit a certain slap sound.

Bollywood dancing was discussed, from its use in film industry to its rising popularity in western society. Many traditional dances call for elaborate costume in an array of patterns and bright colors. Belly-dancing, with its emphasis on stomach and hip motions, proves both challenging and useful to learn. Childbirth classes utilize physical therapies derived from belly-dancing, as it strengthens and loosens the lower body and eases the birthing process. Dancers wear a coin sash around their hips to draw in focus, as well as colorful sashes and finger cymbals.

A Puja, or formal welcoming ceremony, followed the speakers. Club members sang traditional hymns in prayer over the event, expertly playing a harmonium and tabla, which respectively resembled an accordion and bongos. Guests were invited to lift the lit clay lamp on the altar during the last hymn and circle it counter-clockwise in prayer to the goddess believed to live within the flame.

After the music, dinner was served on long tables in an adjacent room. Guests lined up to sample traditionally prepared vegetarian dishes of spiced chickpeas, curried mixed vegetables and fresh pita bread. Dessert was also offered, including gulab jamun, a spongy milk ball soaked in syrup, ras malai, a sweet cheese and cream soup, and kheer, a rice pudding.

Sand art was offered in the adjacent room, as well. Attendees competed to create the best artistic work with glue and multicolored sand on wide sheets of paper.

© The Current 2013