How Australians Will Celebrate Diwali Differently Amid COVID-19

There won’t be big food fairs or mass prayer sessions, but rather, intimate family gatherings and online observances.
Diwali in 2020 will look very different, however family and food will still be central to the festivities. 
Diwali in 2020 will look very different, however family and food will still be central to the festivities. 

For the first time in many years, Amit Tuteja’s Diwali celebrations this weekend will be rather intimate. He won’t be managing Melbourne Indian restaurants packed with hundreds of diners at a time, or celebrating the festival of lights with 40 to 50 relatives at once.

Diwali (also referred to as Deepavali) festivities among Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists will be scaled back as Australia, along with the rest of the world, grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. There won’t be big food fairs in the local park or mass prayer sessions at the temple, but rather, intimate family gatherings and online observances.

“This year, because of COVID-19, we can’t do all the congregations,” Tuteja told HuffPost Australia.

Desi Dhaba restaurant owner Amit Tuteja, pictured at left with one of his staff members, said Diwali will be different this year, with only 40 people allowed to dine at a time.
Desi Dhaba restaurant owner Amit Tuteja, pictured at left with one of his staff members, said Diwali will be different this year, with only 40 people allowed to dine at a time.

Tuteja, who migrated to Australia from India in 1988 as an international student, will see fewer diners at his three Indian restaurants on Saturday. Victoria has just come out of a three-month hard lockdown with some tough restrictions still in place.

“We will still be busy, but we’re only allowed 40 people inside the restaurants,” he explained. “So we’ve already booked out for the 40 in four sittings. Outside you can seat up to 70, however, I don’t have the room for that, I have room for about 30.”

Tuteja usually buys Indian sweets (mithai) for his 60 staff members and pays them a Diwali bonus. Despite his Desi Dhaba restaurant in Melbourne’s central business district doing just one-tenth of its usual business, he still vows to give his workers the sweets and a smaller bonus.

“On a personal front… we’ve got extended family here with my cousins, too. Normally, there’s 40 to 50 of our family together for Diwali,” he explained.

However, after doing some prayers at each restaurant this year, he and his wife will visit his two brothers’ houses separately, in accordance with Victoria’s rule that only two people and their dependants from a single household can visit another household at a time. The couple will then return home for a quiet meal.

Melbourne-based lawyer Molina Asthana said celebrations will be low-key for her family, too. She, her husband and young daughter will visit her in-laws at the Drummond Place retirement community, where they will light traditional lamps (diyas) and enjoy traditional Indian food.

Molina Asthana and Indian playback singer Satya Yamini hold diya lamps during a previous Diwali celebration.
Molina Asthana and Indian playback singer Satya Yamini hold diya lamps during a previous Diwali celebration.
Molina Asthana preparing food with her family. She says that Diwali is usually "a time for sharing, for joy and positivity."
Molina Asthana preparing food with her family. She says that Diwali is usually "a time for sharing, for joy and positivity."

“I would also usually have a get-together with a larger group of friends on the weekend or go to a large community event, usually a fair, which has stalls, cultural performances and fireworks display at the end of the night,” she said.

“This year is particularly difficult for the Indian diaspora because it is the largest festival for Hindus and is a time for sharing, for joy and positivity, but the festivities will be curtailed due to COVID-19. It is also tough for those that have family in India, like myself, as they cannot travel to celebrate with them.”

Sydney-based wedding planner Poonam Gururajan can relate. She told her husband last year, “In 2020, we should celebrate Diwali in India”.

After international border restrictions were enforced, she devised an alternative plan.

“Diwali has taken on a really weird feel to it,” said Gururajan. “We had originally planned for my dad to come over from Melbourne to spend time with us, but the borders haven’t opened up to New South Wales, which is really disappointing.”

“But what we will be doing is visiting all my relatives around Sydney. So while we would have liked to have been in India for Diwali this year, the fact that we can still be surrounded by close family and friends makes me more than happy, and that’s what Diwali means to me — being with family.”

Sydney-based wedding planner Poonam Gururajan had been planning to travel to India to celebrate Diwali before COVID-19 disrupted her plans.
Sydney-based wedding planner Poonam Gururajan had been planning to travel to India to celebrate Diwali before COVID-19 disrupted her plans.

Like Tuteja, Gururajan’s small business has been affected by the pandemic in a major way. Demand for her wedding planning services through her website, The Maharani Diaries, has decreased due to weddings being postponed, but she’s tried to adapt her business model for Diwali.

“One of the projects we’ve been working on is offering these cute Diwali gift box hampers for Sydneysiders,” she said. Each box contains cookies, chutneys, earrings and chai (tea) supplied by other collaborating vendors.

“Even though these boxes were designed as gifts for Diwali, we do plan on extending the offer after Diwali and have plans to make some exciting modifications to it for Christmas,” she said.

Demand for Gururajan’s wedding planning services has decreased due to weddings being postponed, but she’s tried to adapt her business model for Diwali.
Demand for Gururajan’s wedding planning services has decreased due to weddings being postponed, but she’s tried to adapt her business model for Diwali.

Elsewhere in Sydney, South Asian performing group Bindi Bosses will perform a fusion of semi-classical Indian, kuthu, hip-hop and bhangra dance at the Sri Lankan Bites Oxford Village restaurant’s Diwali event in Sydney on Saturday night. Earlier in the day, the group will also perform at a local community Corroboree event at Nurragingy Reserve “to show solidarity with First Nations Peoples, and to learn and to share”.

Bindi Bosses founder Shyamla Eswaran said COVID-19 forced her to “entirely restructure my income base away from performance-related work, as it was no longer sustainable to be a full-time performance artist, which I had been for seven years”.

The Bindi Bosses perform for Diwali in 2019.
The Bindi Bosses perform for Diwali in 2019.
Families will still enjoy traditional Indian sweets for Diwali
Families will still enjoy traditional Indian sweets for Diwali

The Fiji Indian/South Indian performer and her fellow group members, from Sri Lankan Tamil, North Indian, Telugu, Nepalese, Punjabi and Malaysian Tamil backgrounds, had continued practising dance on Zoom until their most recent performance at TedX Sydney. The opportunity to now perform for the community on Diwali is important “to share each of our cultures with each other, reflect, learn and heal”, the group said.

“We see Diwali/Deepavali 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 sweets), which in turn builds genuine respect and deeper understanding for our culture,” the group added.

What is Diwali?

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 for some communities in India, 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 release of the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind Sahib, 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.

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