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© Neena Bhandari, Indo Asian News Service

ImageSydney, Oct 20 (IANS) Thousands of people, including many members of the Indian diaspora, gathered in Sydney and Melbourne over the weekend to usher in Diwali festivities that coincide with the flowering of jacarandas and ripening of mangoes in Australia.

While over 20,000 people celebrated Diwali at Olympic Park in Sydney's Homebush suburb, festivities at Federation Square in the heart of Melbourne's Central Business District drew a staggering 50,000.

Diwali has perhaps become the biggest festival in the Australian cultural calendar as people of Indian origin cross the 200,000 mark and Hinduism becomes one of the fastest growing religions in this multicultural country.

Organised by the Hindu Council of Australia in Sydney and Celebrate India Inc. in Melbourne, the festival in recent years has been attracting almost 50 percent mainstream Australians. 

"Our thrust is to popularise Diwali as the main festival of the Hindu community. It is not just an occasion for the people from the subcontinent, but migrants from Sri Lanka, South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore and Fiji all participate in the fair," said A. Balasubramaniam, chairperson of the Council.

"It has provided a platform for people to meet at one place at least once a year," he told IANS.

Most of the earlier Indian migrants, who came after the `White Australia' policy ended in 1971, celebrated Diwali with few friends at home, a game of cards and sparklers thrown in, and going to one of the temples for a special puja (prayers).

Australia, today, is encouraging migrants to hold their festivals publicly and get the wider community involved.

"Celebrating the tradition of Deepavali as a community helps promote our heritage and cultural values, especially amongst the younger generation," said Amarinder Bajwa, who migrated to Sydney from Chandigarh in 2000 and still misses the pomp and pageantry associated with the festival back home.

Diwali is also celebrated in the state and federal parliaments with illuminations and cultural events showcasing the strength of the Australian-Indian community in the country's multicultural fabric.

In Melbourne, audiences were invited to participate in a Bollywood dancing workshop as part of the festivities.

"The crowds just loved tapping and clapping while manoeuvring different moves on Bollywood hits, past and present. We also introduced the laughter club concept for the first time this year. It was so contagious that there were smiles all around," said Arun Sharma, who migrated here in mid 1970's.

Arun and Jaya Sharma have been organising Diwali celebrations at the icnonic Federation Square for the past few years with a dedicated team of volunteers.

"It really felt good to be in the midst of thousands of fellow Indians who were all out to enjoy themselves and revive the true spirit of Diwali. The dances and food made me feel so much at home," said Joann T. D'souza, a software developer from Mumbai, who is in Melbourne on a short contract.

Added her friend Ritika Dhandhia from Jaipur: "For a few hours I couldn't believe I was not in India!"

As the sun set, a display of technicolour fireworks illuminated the banks of the Yarra river and almost simultaneously, iconic buildings - the Victorian Parliament, Museum Victoria, Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne Town Hall, St. Paul's Cathedral and Federation Square were awash in a purple glow.

In Sydney, Lalit Mital, an architect who migrated to Australia 20 years ago from Delhi with his family, was waiting for dusk too.

"The main attraction for the kids is the burning of Ravana's effigy and the spectacular display of fireworks that follow".

Modern ways have been improvised to celebrate traditional festivals. The oil lamps have given way to ornate electric lights, home dinners have moved to restaurants and bowling clubs, where increasingly children are refusing to join the older members of the family. They would rather organise a Bollywood dance party, where their mainstream Aussie friends join in.

As Hindi Samaj's Shailaja Chaturvedi said: "The festival has lost its grandeur for the generation that has grown here. We do endeavour to recreate the nostalgia, but our children will never know the true spirit of Diwali till they observe it in India."

The growing Indian community has been urging the Australian government to declare Diwali as a public holiday, but that is not happening anytime soon.

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any content is expressly prohibited without  the permission of the writer and the news agency through which the article is syndicated.   

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