REFRESH
26/10/2019 9:55 AM AEDT | Updated 27/10/2019 8:59 PM AEDT

What Diwali Means To 10 South Asian Australians

The festival of lights is here.

Diwali (also referred to as Deepavali) is the five-day festival of lights celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists across the world. Coinciding with the Hindu New Year, the religious occasion celebrates the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. 

Hindus pay tribute to Lord Rama, his wife Sita and his brother Laxman’s return to their kingdom after 14 years in exile as told in the Ramayana story. Meanwhile Sikhs actually celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas, which means Prisoner Release Day. It marks the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind’s Sahib release from India’s Gwalior Prison in 1619 along with 52 princes. Jains call the day Mahavira Nirvana Divas and celebrate spiritual leader Mahavira and his teachings. 

This year Diwali falls on October 27, though some communities may celebrate a day earlier. 

Here’s what Diwali means to 10 South Asian Australians.

Theja Surapaneni, 26 - Dentist 

“Diwali is ultimately a time for family, it’s a an excuse to spend time with our family and our family friends, which have ultimately turned into our family.

“Growing up in Shepparton and Bendigo, we had a very small Indian community and Diwali was an opportunity to get together with them.

“Growing up I was often the only South Asian in my class and sometimes year group, but Diwali was an opportunity for our community to come together under one roof and share delicious food and low cost fireworks.

“Now having moved to Melbourne, Diwali is celebrated at a larger scale here and I think it’s an important turning point in Australia’s history celebrating our multiculturalism as a community.

“As a second generation Indian, I don’t have any personal experiences of celebrating Diwali in India, but looking at the photos of my extended family back home looks like we are missing out on a lot of fun.” 

Sanjana Nagesh, 23 - Founder, Brown Girl Gang 

Sanjana Nagesh
Brown Girl Gang founder Sanjana Nagesh.

“Sweets, sparklers and South Asian heritage; that’s what Diwali means to my Indian-Australian heart. My family moved from Bangalore to Sydney in the early 90s and I was born here soon after, so having dual cultural identities has always been a huge part of my identity.

“I remember my mouth watering and jaw dropping at the endless piles of jalebi, laddoo and barfis that lay before me, marking this iconic day with delicious food as is desi tradition for anything in life. 

“I remember running to grab the last of the elite star-shaped sparklers, ready to brighten up the night with golden showers and watching my family and friends around me laughing and celebrating bringing light into the sky.  

“I remember learning that whilst I was taught to say ‘Deepavali’, the same festival is also known as ‘Diwali’ because my ancestry is rich, diverse and comprises of a vast array of languages. 

“As I get older, life gets in the way and sometimes it’s difficult to mark the day in a big way, e.g. I’m currently in NYC on my first BrownGirlGang business trip (which is special in a different way). However, I’m so grateful for my family who introduced me to this amazing part of my culture growing up, as it enabled me to build a strong understanding and appreciation for who I am and where I come from.” 

Sukhdeep Singh Bhogal aka L Fresh The Lion, 30 - Hip Hop Artist

Cole Bennetts
Sukhdeep Singh Bhogal aka L Fresh The Lion

“When I was a child, I referred to it as Diwali. But as I got older, I came to know it as Bandi Chhor Divas: the release of Dhan Dhan Sri Guru Hargobind Sahib ji.

“For me, the day has moved from being just a celebration with friends, family and the community at the house, Gurdwara or at a mela, to being a reminder of our purpose.

“Sri Guru Hargobind Sahib ji’s act of getting freedom not just for himself but for others, even when his own was guaranteed, reminds me that as a Sikh, my purpose in life is to serve humanity. It reminds me that freedom for some is not freedom for all, and that I can use my position to help because our collective wellbeing is bound together.

“As a person born and raised in Australia, it reminds me of my duty to First Nations people and the importance of walking together in repairing the wrongs of the past and present. These days, I usually celebrate the day by spending time with the Sikh community at the local Gurdwara.”

Shyamla Eswaran, 35 - Founder/Artistic Director, Bindi Bosses

My mother and father were the first people from each of their families in Fiji and India respectively to migrate to Australia. We grew up in the Sutherland Shire and were the only South Asian family in our suburb so Diwali was celebrated privately with pooja at home and a visit to Sri Venkateswara Temple in Helensburgh. Outside of community and religious events, our cultural celebrations were not displayed publicly.

“During Diwali, my mum would send me to school wearing a new item of clothing and I’d look forward to the gulab jamun and sweet poli that awaited me at home. Since then we’ve had aunties, uncles and cousins from both sides of the family visiting and living with us before moving into their own homes around Sydney.

“The more family that came, the more we celebrated cultural and religious events because we had them here to share it with. Diwali was the one time of year we would all make the effort to get together and wear at least one new item of clothing, visit each others’ homes for pooja, go to the temple, write our names with sparklers in the backyard and eat way too many sweets! 

“I see Diwali as an opportunity to publicly embrace our traditions and open our cultural doors to the wider community, inviting them to experience and learn about South Asian culture firsthand through colour, dance, music and food (especially jalebi!), which in turn builds genuine respect and deeper understanding for our culture. 

“This week I performed at Jones Lang Laselle’s first ever Diwali celebration at their CBD office on behalf of Bindi Bosses to help them understand what Diwali means. It made me teary seeing all the South Asian staff wearing their traditional clothing in a corporate environment and creating beautiful Rangoli with their colleagues. Cross-cultural exchange is everything!”

Noel Aruliah, 20 - Founder, Subtle Curry Traits

Noel Aruliah 
Subtle Curry Traits founder Noel Aruliah.

“Diwali is a special time of year where family, friends and even foes can share a meal, reconnect, reconcile and celebrate this beautiful life given to us.

“At Subtle Curry Traits our mission is to heal the world with humour. This year we want to challenge you to help bring back hope, joy and unity in your celebrations with friends and family, especially ones you may not be on good terms with.

“Let humour be be the bridge to gap all division and hatred in this amazing season of salt and light. Share a meme, share a joke, share a laugh! 

Sharon Johal - Actress, Neighbours 

“Diwali for me and my family means card parties, late dinners, fireworks in Delhi with the kids and also adults.

“Whilst I was born in Australia and my biggest and best memories of Diwali have been when I’m visiting India, when I’m in Australia I visit the local gurdwara and celebrate with the local community.

“For me, as a proud Sikh, we celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas, a Sikh holiday which coincides with the day of Diwali.

“Diwali in India is a completely different experience than in Australia mainly due to the legality around fireworks and the amount of people celebrating the festival. In recent years in Australia there has been a big increase in great community events being held and it is definitely getting brighter and louder than it has in the past.

“Special memories of my childhood are the first lighting of the diyas and placing them around the house on Choti Diwali. I love it because it’s a great opportunity to celebrate and spend time with family and catching up with friends but also what it represents; light over darkness and love for all.”

Khushaal Vyas, 24 - Lawyer, 2017 NSW Premier’s Multicultural Community Youth Medal Winner 

Salty Dingo
Khushaal Vyas as MC at the 2019 Multicultural NSW Diwali event.

“Diwali for me, as cliche as it sounds, is predominantly about the family aspect of it all more than anything else. While it does require a lot more hours contributing to clean the house (to a ridiculous degree) in preparation for visiting guests, it’s worth it.

“With most of my cousins having grown up, travelling/working overseas, it’s the one time of year where most, if not all of the youngsters right up to the elders of the family are available and together.

“Making that happen, passing on traditions (even something as simple as lighting up sparklers) with my youngest cousins and just having a time where everyone ensures they are together that day makes it a very special occasion.”

Shami Sivasubramanian, 29 - Freelance consultant, co-host of Backchat on FBi

“Deepavali to me means togetherness. At its core, the festival is all about light winning over darkness, which is a pretty universal concept. But what I’ve always found fascinating is that the religious significance behind Deepavali differs between Hindu denominations, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs. I think it’s beautiful that in spite of those differences, we all come together from different faiths to celebrate. 

“Nowadays, my family orders a Chrisco-style hamper of sweets and savouries, because we’re far too lazy to make them on our own. But my earliest memories of Deepavali are far more sombre and humble.

“I remember as a child, my father coming home from work with a pack of those long fire sparklers people sometimes top really big, fancy cakes with. After dinner and stuffing our faces with several homemade sweets, my sister and I would head out on the front patio and light up those sparklers under our parents’ watchful eyes. I had to be only six years old, but I still remember writing my name in the air and watching the glow of the letters linger.

“I also remember how quiet the rest of the neighbourhood was. We were the only family celebrating Deepavali on our street. At the time I didn’t realise how lonely we were.

“It’s lovely to see more and more other Australians embrace Deepavali today. Deepavali is all about good triumphing over evil and illuminating yourself from the dark. Anyone can get behind that!”

Ganathipan Aruneswaran, 28 - Musician

Film Drop
Ganathipan Aruneswaran

“For my lifetime, as an Australian-born with Sri-Lankan Tamil parents, I’ve always known the festival of lights as Deepavali, as opposed to Diwali. Deepavali in our family tends to be celebrated by getting new clothes to symbolise new beginnings. It’s also a chance to remind ourselves of the story behind it and the symbolism of light as hope. 

“While growing up in country areas, we used the family prayer room as opposed to the local temple. My parents centred the festivities on when they were in Sri Lanka. The consequence of that was our celebrations tended to be more family-based as opposed to community-based.

“I appreciate the routine of the day on its own merits, but it means I don’t fully appreciate the finer details or get a perspective of it outside of my parents and grandma. 

“My connection to Diwali from a more outside perspective is through art. I’ve seen instances of Diwali portrayed in South Indian cinema as positive times for family as well as lights kept in different forms such as sparkles and lamps. The closest way I could interpret this feeling would be through my own music, where I’ve composed an instrumental called ‘Ecstasy’.”

Swarnaa Rajalingam - Founder, The Life Of A Social Butterfly 

“Diwali or Deepavali as my family calls it is a tradition that has been celebrated by my family members for as long as I can remember. It’s a time where my family would come together, wear fresh new clothes, visit the temple, eat delicious food and spend good quality time together. 

“However, in recent times I’ve learnt that Deepavali is a celebration we as Tamils from the diaspora should not be celebrating because we are glorifying the death of Raavanan who is a Tamil king.”