Opening their homes to friends, relatives and the goddess

Indian Americans celebrate the Hindu Festival of Lights

Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2005

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David S. Spence⁄The Gazette
In preparation for the upcoming Hindu festival Diwali, Dahera Rahman (left) and Rezd Rahman, Bangladesh natives visiting relatives in the area, shop for saris at the India Sari Palace.

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David S. Spence⁄The Gazette
Lakshman Nadwani, manager of the India Sari Palace in Takoma Park, displays a shrine to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and beauty.

For the stretch of businesses along University Boulevard East in Takoma Park that serve the area’s Indian-American communities, next week is the start of a brand new year.

Lakshman Nandwani, manager of the Indian Sari Palace, will gather with his employees Tuesday to observe Diwali, a joyous festival when Hindus honor Lakshmi, their goddess of wealth and beauty.

In addition to celebrating the occasion at home, the staff will participate in a ritual, or pooja, to bless the business, and like many Indian retailers, Nandwani will close his books and start a new accounting cycle.

‘‘For Hindus, Diwali is more like New Year’s or Christmas, so we have a new business year and we start our books from the Diwali day,” he said. ‘‘We do poojas even for the items we use in the store — for the scissors and yard sticks, even the cash registers and the safe.

‘‘It’s like we are inviting Mother Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Mother Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and wisdom, into our stores,” he said. ‘‘So we invite them with prayers to keep our books so that our business will prosper.”

Business owners often will give employees bonuses as part of the celebration, he added.

All of the Indian business on the block, which includes two restaurants, a jeweler, a music store, a grocery and two clothing stores, have statues of the goddess seated on a lotus flower, which is an important spiritual image found in both Hinduism and Buddhism.

At the Bollywood Bazaar, which carries flowing silk formal wear along with traditional jewelry and DVD rentals, manager Kamna Wadhwani keeps her statue of Lakshmi behind the cash register.

Lakshmi, with four arms each representing righteousness, desires, wealth and liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth, is often depicted with gold coins streaming from her hands to symbolize the wealth that comes from worshiping her.

While Hindus give extra attention to Lakshmi during Diwali, devotion to the goddess is maintained year-round to ensure successful business, said Pradip Shah, manager of the Jasmine Bazaar grocery store.

‘‘Lakshmi, our mother goddess, we pray or pooja every day for her, all 365 days of the year we pray,” Shah said. ‘‘Every store that is Hindu will pray to Lakshmi, but especially on Diwali.”

He added that business has been brisk, as people prepare to open their homes to the goddess and to friends and relatives.

Although Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights, marks an important occasion for Indian businesses, the largest, most jubilant celebrations are in Hindu homes, where Indian Sari Palace’s Nandwani said the atmosphere is joyful.

‘‘This is the day when we invite in Lord Ganesh [one of Hinduism’s main deities] and Lakshmi,” he said. ‘‘We keep our houses very neat and clean on Diwali, just like you are inviting special guests. We have prayers, we distribute sweets and food and so on, have a nice family meal and invite our friends so that they also participate in the pooja.”

Families also light candles and traditional lamps called diyas that are filled with mustard oil to celebrate the festival. In addition, everyone dresses in new clothing, and area retailers like Nandwani often have sales to entice shoppers preparing for the religious holiday.

‘‘Hindus have a small temple in our homes, so we always keep the lights on for Diwali,” he said. ‘‘We always keep our house and hearts open for Ganesh and Lakshmi to come in.”

Jains and Sikhs, two of the smaller religions in predominately Hindu India, also observe the five-day Diwali festival. The name, which also is spelled Dipavali or Deepavali, means ‘‘row of lights” in the ancient Sanskrit language.