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‘The sense of connection is stronger’: Diwali during COVID-19

This weekend, Saturday 14 November, Diwali celebrations in Canberra will be smaller and more intimate than a typical year, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Diwali is known as the festival of light and is traditionally celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Newar Buddhists.

There are many ways to celebrate Diwali, with different deities, traditions and symbolism, and the staff at family-run Kitchen King Grocer’s in Phillip have done their best to make sure this diversity is reflected in the decorations for sale in their glittering Diwali display.

Amardeep Shergill, a member of the grocer’s family and staff, said even though Diwali will be different this year, people felt more connected.

“In the conversations I’ve been having with customers, they’re obviously feeling it’s been a tough time, and everybody’s gone through a very fearful and uncertain time,” she said.

“So this is where they are connecting to people a lot more; I feel like they’re celebrating this festival in a different way and it’s much more intimate.

“It feels like it’s a lot more meaningful – not that it wasn’t before – but this sense of connection I’m feeling is a lot stronger.”

Ms Shergill said the atmosphere in the shop was that Diwali was something that connects all people, from different cultures and religions.  

“And even now we have people who are not from our culture giving us Diwali wishes and gifts, because they know it’s important to us.

“And that really makes me feel there’s something that’s happening here that’s really good, because it’s connecting – we unite people on the basis of difference, not divide them.”

Amongst a variety of decorations for sale, the oil lamp is a staple of Diwali celebrations.

Victory of good over evil

The festival arose from a story in the Ramayana, one of the largest ancient epics in world literature, composed in the 5th century BCE.

Diwali marks the day Prince Ram returned from 14 years of exile with his wife Sita, brother Lakshman and devotee Hanuman.

It is said the citizens expected the small group’s return and lit thousands of glowing lights to guide the way and welcome them.

The lamps symbolise the victory of good over evil, which is the message at the heart of the celebrations.

In past years, Diwali was celebrated at large venues like Exhibition Park, the Canberra Theatre Centre and Civic Square, however, India Australia Association ACT president Sandi Mitra said constraints and regulations regarding crowd management during the pandemic made it too difficult.

“All the small households are gathering family and celebrating Diwali in family spaces rather than going into the bigger, exposed world,” he said.

And although he sensed some people were getting tired of the restrictions, many were still skeptical about throwing large events.

“I myself am from India and I can see how people are going over there, they have less restrictions and the numbers are getting higher every day.”

Hindu Temple and Cultural Centre of ACT president, Basu Banka, said the temple community would still celebrate Diwali this year, however, it will be on a much smaller scale.

Maha Prasadam, food that has been offered to deities in the temple, will not be served because of the COVID-19 restrictions.

“Normally after the event we serve food to everyone, close to 400 people. But with restrictions we are not comfortable to serve food to such a big number,” Mr Banka said.

“We are asking devotees to come in at different times, like a little bit of a roster. We cannot have more than 80 people at any time.”

Mr Banka said he and the community felt lucky enough to be celebrating at all.

With international and some state borders closed, Ms Shergill pointed out not everyone will be able to celebrate with family, which made the atmosphere in the shop all the more special.

“Everybody’s been coming in and loving this, and complimenting it, because it gives them a feeling of Diwali, and home.

“It’s really amazing. I had one guy who walked in here and then came back again just for the atmosphere.”

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