Hey Seattle, get in the Diwali spirit!

Puja Chauhan helps create flower rangoli art, led by artist Annie Penta, during a Festival of Lights Diwali celebration at the Seattle Center Armory in 2014. (Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)
Puja Chauhan helps create flower rangoli art, led by artist Annie Penta, during a Festival of Lights Diwali celebration at the Seattle Center Armory in 2014. (Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)

Spending a major holiday in a different country is always a strange experience — a poignant reminder that you’re a visitor in someone else’s world. I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving at an Italian restaurant in Northern Iraq, Christmas over a coconut drink in Southern India and Easter in Ethiopia (subtract the chocolate and add a spray of holy water by fire hose).

These examples are exceptions in a lifetime of major holidays spent in a culture that acknowledges the sanctity of the day.

But for our region’s rapidly growing Indian American population, the desire to raise the profile of the important Hindu holiday of Diwali is increasingly urgent. Diwali officially fell last Sunday but will be celebrated through this weekend.

 “For me and Hindu friends who were observing [Diwali], it was a big deal,” says Ruchika Tulshyan, who moved to Seattle three years ago and compares the importance of the day to “Christmas times a million.”
But she says few of her non-Indian friends know about the holiday, and even a post on Facebook drew silence. “Nobody outside of the community actually wished me a ‘Happy Diwali,’ ” she says, adding with a laugh, “though I was asked a lot about trick-or-treating.”

Tulshyan grew up in Singapore, where Hindus are a minority, but Diwali, a festival that celebrates the triumph of good over evil, is celebrated as an official holiday.

She says a whole day off may be impractical in a city like Seattle, where there are so many religions. But she believes official acknowledgment of the day could go a long way in making the region’s Hindu Indian Americans feel welcome.

“The White House now celebrates Diwali,” says Lalita Uppala of the India Association of Western Washington,citing President Obama’s lighting of a ritual lamp for the first time this year.

She helps organize an annual Diwali celebration, this year on Sunday at Skyline High School in Sammamish. “It signifies to the Indian Americans in this country that we belong.”

Gaining a sense of belonging is important, but so is finding a way to pass down traditions to a new generation of Indian Americans growing up in the Pacific Northwest.

“It was particularly hard with a little baby,” says Tulshyan, who had her first child this year. “It really brings into focus this feeling of isolation and loneliness.”

There are a number of Diwali celebrations in the region, especially in Eastside cities, such as Bellevue and Redmond, where many Indians have settled through jobs with Microsoft over the past 20 years.

But Tulshyan, who has written tips for celebrating Diwali in the Pacific Northwest, represents a new generation of Indian Americans drawn specifically to Seattle by jobs at Amazon’s downtown Seattle campus, where her husband works.

“My family and I have certainly made the drive to the Eastside many times,” says Tulshyan, of past treks to Hindu temples and celebrations. “But it is hard, and I do wish we had something here that is easy for us to access.”

Dozens of small plastic candles sit on a display at the Festival of Lights Diwali celebration at the Seattle Center Armory in 2014. (Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)
Dozens of small plastic candles sit on a display at the Festival of Lights Diwali celebration at the Seattle Center Armory in 2014. (Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)

And that’s part of what the Seattle Center’s Festál series hopes to accomplish by hosting an annual, daylong Diwali festival this Sunday at the Seattle Center Armory.

“You know with the changing demographics here… festivals are how people learn about art, culture and tradition,” says Latha Sambamurti, artistic director of that festival.

Sambamurti boasts that this weekend’s festival will have everything from henna to yoga, food to folk dance, rangoli (colored-rice drawings) to candle-lighting ceremonies.

“We’re bringing a slice of our culture to our adopted land,” she says.

That idea resonates with Tulshyan, who imagines a future when her now 4-month-old son shares his culture’s traditions with peers.

“I’m looking forward to a day, 10 years from now, when Veer is in school and his non-Indian friends wish him Happy Diwali.” she says, adding, “And maybe partake in the festivities, too.”

To find out more about how you might partake, visit:

http://www.seattlecenter.com/festal

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Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville

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