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Digital Diwali: How U.S. celebrations for Indian festival of lights pivoted this year

The pandemic restrictions have resulted in creative alternatives like online pujas and Gulab Jamun Bundt cakes in the mail.
Woman hand lighting diyas during diwali,Varanasi,Uttar Pradesh,India.
The five-day festival of lights, which falls on Saturday this year, will see curtailed revelry due to coronavirus restrictions.Subir Basak / Getty Images

For this year’s U.S. Diwali celebration, various temples and places of worship will conduct online puja, a ceremonial prayer that offers fruits and flowers to Hindu deities.

The five-day festival of lights, which falls on Saturday this year, will see curtailed revelry due to coronavirus restrictions.

Diwali, which symbolizes the victory of good over evil and is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, is often observed by offering prayers, visiting family, lighting lamps, decorating homes and exchanging gifts and sweets.

For many South Asian Americans, this means resorting to creative alternatives to celebrate.

The CDC recommends that holidays with just household members pose the least risk while any small gathering should follow 6-feet social distancing, masks, hand washing and other regulations.

The Hindu Temple Society of North America in Flushing, Queens, will conduct online pujas while allowing limited worshippers and following social distancing rules, Ravi Vaidyanaat, who is overseeing events, told NBC Asian America.

One of the biggest celebrations is New York City’s Diwali in Times Square, which has been organized by event manager and host Neeta Bhasin since 2013. It draws a big crowd and features dance and musical performances, appearances by Indian American and Bollywood personalities as well political figures like Mayor Bill de Blasio, who attended last year.

The festival has now pivoted to three days of online events.

The virtual celebrations, broadcast live on the event’s social media platforms, include a lamp-lighting ceremony from Times Square, a recorded message from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and concerts with renowned singers from different parts of India

Bhasin said that even at a smaller scale, she hoped the festivities could elevate the significance of the festival — the triumph of light over darkness — especially since the lockdown has caused so much anxiety and isolation.

“Covid-19 is the biggest evil right now, but we realized that we needed to defeat it by following the rules and regulations while still celebrating to uplift the spirits not only of our Indian American community but for everyone who can now join in on the festivities,” she said.

Across the country in Belmont, California, instead of a festive celebration, former “MasterChef USA” contestant Hetal Vasavada says she will be on a Zoom call with family. They’ll celebrate with care packages she sent out with handmade treats like Gulab Jamun Bundt cakes and Orange Tutti Frutti icebox cookies, an amalgamation of Indian and Western tastes.

Vasavada, 33, is honoring the holiday’s tradition of eating mithai (sweets) with not only her care packages, but also the Diwali dessert e-book she launched last month to help bring people together over food, in the absence of in-person celebrations.

The digital cookbook inspired one of her readers, Diya Basu, to do some delivery drop-offs of her own. She said that she baked four different recipes for nine hours to make 15 colorful boxes of mithai for her friends.

“Diwali is such a bright time of the year with lots of colors and decorations and sweets," she said. "I wanted to bring some of that joy to those I would normally be with."