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Festival Of Lights

S. Florida Hindus prepare to celebrate festival of lights

By James D. Davis
Religion Editor

November 11, 2004

The gratitude of Thanksgiving, the gift-giving of Christmas, the fireworks of New Year, the lamplight of Hanukkah -- Divali has much that many Americans would find familiar.

The five-day Hindu festival, which starts at sundown today, has all that and more. It incorporates gratitude to a benevolent goddess and a victorious king. It's a time for open and closing accounts, personal and financial. A time for making friends and for making up.

"Divali stands for confidence, generosity, trust, universal brotherhood," said Dr. Nandita Shankar, president of the South Florida Hindu Temple, one of a half-dozen area temples. "People mend broken friendships, forget the past, look to the future."

The festival honors Lakshmi, the goddess of peace and prosperity. South Florida temples will add cultural and social layers.

In Boynton Beach, Shree Swaminarayan Mandir will stretch its Divali events across 10 days. First will be a formal Lakshmi Puja, or prayer, on Friday night, followed by Annakoot, ritual food offerings in four sessions on Sunday.

Also on Sunday will be a cultural program with fireworks and sweets, some of them offered to the images of deities in the sanctuary. Youths from 12 to 20 years old will sing and perform folk dances from their native Gujarat, a state in western India. The temple also will screen a three-minute trailer for Mystic India, a new Imax film that traces the 18th century trek across India of the boy who became Shree Swaminarayan, a spiritual leader revered by many Hindus as a god. Younger children will get their own Divali celebration on Nov. 21.

The goal of the Boynton Beach celebration is to instill cultural heritage in the next generation, said temple spokesman Nibodh Patel.

"For the older people, it will bring back memories from India," he said . "For people who were born here, they'll learn what their parents learned."

Shiva Mandir in Oakland Park celebrated the cultural side of Divali on Saturday night, marked with feasting, music, dancing and a fashion show. Tonight's events, starting at 7:30, will center on the more religious aspects, with prayers to Lakshmi led by Pandit Bimal Maharaj.

Also at the temple -- at 23 the oldest Hindu congregation in South Florida -- will be several hundred clay lamps, or diyas, a central symbol of Divali.

"Hindu teaching says the clay of the diya represents the body," said Vijay Persad, chairman of the temple. "The wick represents the mind. And the light that emanates from it represents the soul."

A Maha Lakshmi Puja will start at 7 tonight at the South Florida Hindu Temple, invoking the goddess's spirit with a 16-step devotion. The ritual includes the lighting of diyas, plus chanting. An elaborate statue of the goddess is symbolically seated and anointed with perfumes. Devotees also offer prasad, or blessed food.

After the ritual, the food will be part of the congregational feast. Music and fireworks will be included.

"I think Hinduism is often mistaken for a totally ascetic faith," Shankar said. "But in Divali, we celebrate food, nature, growth, all that life has to give."

Observances will be more conservative at Shiva Vishnu, one of South Florida's most traditional temples. The ornate house of worship will conduct a group prayer at 6:30 tonight, followed by fireworks -- although in the temple's residential Southwest Ranches setting the fireworks will be limited to sparklers and flowerpots. Also at the celebration will be traditional Indian sweets, which resemble halvah and marzipan.

"Sweets are a tradition in any Indian festival," said Dr. Ram Iyengar, a trustee of Shiva Vishnu. "Sweetness represents joy and happiness."

A Divali festival is set for Saturday at the North Miami Beach Performing Arts Center. About 100 members of the University of Miami's Indian Students Association will sing, dance and present a sketch about the holiday.

Aruna Airan, an adviser to the student organization, predicted attendance of 800 to 900. "It's been going on for a decade and gets bigger every year," she said.

James D. Davis can be reached at jdavis@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4730.

Copyright © 2004, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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