The cultural tapestry of India is woven with a myriad of festivals, each offering a unique glimpse into the country’s traditions and diversity. What adds an extra layer of richness to these celebrations is the participation of foreigners who have made India their home and expats who are away from home. Foreigners living in India often embrace the vibrant spirit of Indian festivals with enthusiasm, becoming an integral part of the festivities.
Whether it’s the exuberance of Holi, the warmth of Diwali, or the joy of Eid, these individuals contribute to and appreciate the cultural mosaic that defines the Indian festival experience. In this fusion of cultures, the celebrations become a shared expression of joy, and unity, and a celebration of the shared human experience transcending borders.
Diwali has truly become an international festival. It is celebrated beyond borders. Whether they live abroad or in India, foreigners have made the festival of Diwali their own. The Social Nation team spoke to 3 creators, Mila (Ukranian in a saree), Alessanddra Nirrwaan, and Brent Globe about how they have embraced the festivities here in India. Read on to know more.
It’s been a decade since you came to India, would you say you’ve fully imbibed the Indian culture by now?
Brent: The Indian culture is so beautifully rich and vast, I don’t think I’ll ever really “fully imbibe” it. However, when it comes to rituals and ceremonies, I feel very confident and seasoned in how I present myself, because I used to be a wide-eyed foreigner with the “This is all so NEW” look on my face. And second, I’ve taken a good amount of time in learning about the symbology of the deities, how they correspond to ritual, and where they intersect. Learning Hindi also vastly helped in delivering Sanskrit prayers within the ceremonies.
Alessanddra: I was always passionate about Indian culture, I am from Brazil and since I came to live in India I do everything to adjust to the culture and customs, which I’m almost 100% there. Language is one thing that I still have to work hard on, but it’s my goal to start a new year fluent in Hindi language. In the other aspects of Indian culture, I feel I’m totally adjusted.
How did you first learn about Diwali, and what were your initial impressions of the festival?
Alessanddra: I came to know about the festival of Diwali from my husband. He is Indian and we got married in 2014 in India. My husband is my biggest teacher when it comes to Indian culture and he used to explain to me all about the rituals and traditions of Diwali.
Brent: My first impressions were when I was living in Mumbai. Fireworks were going off for a straight week. It felt like the city was under siege. When we drove in the car we would sometimes have to swerve because people who light crackers in the middle of the street. So my initial impression was pretty chaotic. After some time, I learned about how the lights were to represent driving away the darkness. And a lighted path was to illuminate your life for the coming year.
Can you share any specific Diwali traditions or customs that you find particularly fascinating or unique?
Mila: I found it interesting that if family members are staying in different houses, they pray together in each and every house, and then in the office too. Last Diwali, I had attended pujas at 4 places. I also find it amusing how people are not afraid to play with fireworks while standing so close to them! Personally, I’m afraid of “patakas” and even a little relieved that they are getting banned.
Alessanddra: There are so many aspects of Diwali that are fascinating for me. We renovate and clean our homes as a sign of a new beginning. This makes me feel so good. All the preparations about decorating the home, buying new clothes, and preparing the menu with delicious food are really exciting facts that make me and the whole family engaged and really happy. Lighting the diyas, praying and hoping for peace in this world is something that makes this festival so important for me and my family.
What aspects of Diwali celebrations in India do you find most different from festivals in your home country?
Brent: It’s kind of like Christmas and American Independence Day all rolled into one. Thankfully, the temperatures are more tolerable than in America. People come and wish you prosperity for the coming year, much like Christmas/New Year. In America, our communities are huge in decorating the house with lights and all sorts of displays. Always makes me feel like home.
Alessanddra: Diwali is different because it’s not just one day, there are several days of festivities and every day has something meaningful to observe. Another aspect is the liveliness of the colours and lights that I’m sure we cannot find anywhere else in this world!!!
Mila: If we compare two main festivals in India and Ukraine, it will be Diwali and New Year. Both of them mean tasty festive treats that many families can’t afford otherwise. Both will involve pretty lights in every house and fireworks. But traditionally, Ukrainian New Year will involve getting improperly drunk and eating a lot of non-vegetarian food, while Diwali is more about connecting to the divine.
Have you participated in any local Diwali rituals or events? Could you tell us about your experiences?
Mila: I love rangoli. Mine tend to look like they’re made by a child, but I always ensure to check out the creations of all the neighbours. The best part is dressing up. Last year after getting dolled up I asked my sister-in-law: “Didi is it too much?” “Nothing is too much for Diwali” she responded.
Alessanddra: I’ve been celebrating Diwali with my family for 9 years now. My experience each year is that I always learn something new about this celebration. It’s so rich in history and significance!
During Diwali, we make various snacks and sweets at home, have you tried and made any?
Brent: Kaju Katli is my traditional go-to sweet that I have no problem eating…sometimes a stack of six…At the end of the nights, I find more in my pocket that I was saving for later!
Mila: Making Indian sweets is definitely rocket science! I saw my husband making Gajar Ka Halwa at home, after accidentally ordering 3 kg of carrots. It took hours! But I’m always ready to eat traditional desserts 🙂 best picks would be Soan Papdi, Besan Ke Laddu, Aam Papad, and unique Rose Laddu.
Alessanddra: I love the snacks and the sweets served during Diwali. I personally learned how to cook Indian food and I make a point to prepare most of the meals for Diwali. I make butter paneer, dal makhani, veg pulao, onions pakodas, sevai kheer, and lassi.
Can you share any memorable or heartwarming moments from your past Diwali celebrations in India?
Brent: This Diwali is going to be the most special as it’s our son’s first Diwali, ever. Of course, he’s not going to really understand too much, but for us, as new parents, it’s incredibly special. He’s the best gift from God we could ever ask for.
Alessanddra: After 5 years of marriage, my husband and I had a baby that I delivered in Brazil. Because of the pandemic, we were stuck in Brazil for almost 2 years. After that, we could have a proper Diwali celebration with our new baby and the whole family together. It made our Diwali heartwarming and memorable!
What advice would you give to fellow expatriates or foreigners on fully embracing and enjoying the Diwali experience in India?
Brent: I would first recommend dressing in something festively Indian; it always livens up the experience of participating. Second, embrace the music and loud explosions. Third, when you visit someone’s house, you must eat a little something in each home. Families go through a lot in providing food and festivities and ‘No, I’m dieting’ is a little on the rude side – so indulge a little everywhere!
Mila: It’s best to get invited by the family you know. They will explain everything! Indians are more than happy to share the joy of traditional celebrations. Just mention that you want to experience real Diwali, and you will be asked to join!
Alessanddra: I would say that everyone should at least once in a lifetime have an experience of celebrating Diwali, understanding the meaning and enjoying all the richness of culture that we will find only in India!
Indian festivals do bring everyone together in the best way possible. And especially when it comes to Diwali. Foreigners in the country are also putting their best foot forward to celebrate the festival of lights with equal zeal and gusto as the Indians. It is so heartwarming to see them imbibe our culture and festivities as their own and enjoy them too!