2018-12-05 / Front Page

Hindus Celebrate Diwali In Richmond Hill

BY Henna Choudhary

On Liberty Avenue in Richmond Hill, a man donning a red, yellow, and green traditional sari and a golden crown brandished a torch with a blazing fire. He brought the torch to his head, skillfully lighting the candles perched atop his golden crown, while staring straight ahead and smiling at the spectators lining the sidewalks. Behind him, artificial, life-sized white unicorns concealed a blue pick-up truck’s hood, and a dome illuminated by hundreds of fairy lights and carnation garlands hovered over the trunk, casting light into the night as religious Hindi songs emanated from speakers. 

Diwali, the Festival of Lights, follows the Hindu lunar calendar and was celebrated annually by millions of Hindu devotees worldwide on November 7. Queens’ Hindu population was no exception.  Richmond Hill’s Diwali Motorcade, the community’s longest-standing and most elaborate Diwali celebration, drew in throngs of local residents and participants from the New York metropolitan area on the first Saturday of November.

Queens is home to the largest population of Hindus living within the five boroughs, with 16,775 adherents who regularly attend services at traditional Hindu temples, according to the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2015 American Values Atlas survey.

“Back in the ‘70s when Indo-Caribbeans first landed here we had to hide and pray, we didn’t have a temple. Now there’s hundreds of temples. You couldn’t wear your Indian clothes with pride or cover your head proudly. Now we can have a parade with thousands of people and we’re able say this is our culture, this is our religion, and we can proudly share it with the world,” said Lakshmee Singh, the Diwali Motorcade’s head organizer. 

Children and young adults, some painted blue to resemble the Hindu deities Shiva and Krishna, wore traditional clothing of all colors, flashy gold jewelry, and jewel-encrusted crowns as they waved from atop floats, which were funded by local temples and organizations. Dancers wearing fuchsia and gold carried gold plates lined with lotus flowers behind their temple’s float, while the event’s master of ceremonies called out praises as each float passed the beginning mark of the parade’s route.

Participants start preparing for the extravagant celebration weeks in advance by purchasing garlands, shiny streamers, banners, costumes, and accessories. Temple devotees practice dance sequences, rehearse songs, and prepare floats in the hopes of winning the cash prize for the best float on the auspicious night of festivities. During the days leading up to Diwali, devotees decorate their homes and businesses with fairy lights and rows of diyas, which are small, round clay lamps lit by a cotton wick dipped in ghee.

The Divya Jyoti Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to the celebration of Diwali in Richmond Hill, has been hosting the festivities annually since 1990 with the exception of a couple of years due to denied permits. But in recent years, the parade’s participants and crowds of onlookers have soared.

“The motorcade has grown in numbers due to publicity, prizes for the floats, the role of social media, and participation by the temples and the general public,” said Dr. Dhanpaul Narine, last year’s parade Grand Marshall and the president of Shri Trimurti Bhavan Hindu Temple. “Another reason is that the motorcade is seen as a community event, and not just a Guyanese occasion.”

Richmond Hill’s largest foreign-born population is from Guyana with 14,242 residents, said the American Community Survey’s 2016 survey.  The religious holiday celebrated in Richmond Hill mimics many cultural customs from Guyana, which originated in India, including sharing sweet delicacies, such as gulab jamun, a milky, deep-fried delicacy dripping in sweet syrup. 

Adorning children to resemble deities, designing floats, and decorating one’s hands and feet with intricate designs using mehendi, a dye paste, are also Diwali customs carried over the waters by the Guyanese immigrants that live in the community.

“It brings a sense of home to immigrants who have come from other countries, specifically from Guyana,” said Lakshmee Singh, who is also a talk show host, humanitarian, and actress.  “We mimic the parades that happen in Guyana and we feel a sense of home when we see the floats and kids dressed up.”

 Photos Henna Choudhary

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