Frist lady Michelle Obama lit the lamp,or diya,Tuesday in celebration of the South Asian holiday that is celebrated by millions of Hindus,Sikhs,Jains and Buddhists. It’s the fifth year for the White House to honor the holiday.
“When we say that we want to make the White House the ‘people’s house,’ we mean all people,” Obama said. “We mean that we want to honor and embrace all of the many cultures and faith traditions that make us who we are as Americans. And Diwali is very much one of those traditions.”
The first lady; Janaki Ram Marthi,a priest from the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham,Md.,and temple chair Mythili Lee Bachu lit the diya in the East Room.
But the celebration wasn’t limited to lighting the lamp. Before the ceremony,more than three dozen students from area schools and the first lady learned some Bollywood dance moves from Nakul Dev Mahajan – an American Bollywood dancer best known for his choreography on the Fox show “So You Think You Can Dance.”
The Obamas spent the holiday in India in 2010,where they celebrated Diwali and observed the ancient traditions of lighting diyas,dancing and watching fireworks and firecrackers.
The five-day festival can be categorized in two different ways – social observance and religious observance – similar to Christians celebrating Christmas,B.N. Hebbar said. Hebbar is a religion professor at George Washington University specializing in Hindu and Indian studies.
The holiday,he said,is about celebrating “victory of truth over ignorance,victory of light over darkness and victory of immortality over death.”
Traditionally,in India and many other countries outside of the U.S.,Hebbar said people will light thousands of lamps and candles at their homes and temples for worship and celebration. It’s harder to do that in the United States,he said,because buildings in other countries are made out of stone and brick – unlike the flammable wood and insulated homes in the U.S.
Observers of the holiday celebrate by eating with family and friends,dancing and prayer.
The holiday honors the god Vishnu,the preserver and protector of the universe,and his mate Lakshmi,the goddess of wealth. The holiday generally falls in October or November depending on the lunar cycle. This year Diwali fell on Sunday. The day after the holiday marks the beginning of a new financial year.
Obama said Diwali is not only a time for celebration but also a time for contemplation and reflection.
“It’s a time for us to think about our obligations to our fellow human beings,particularly those who are less fortunate than we are. And as we light the diya – the lamp – we recommit ourselves to the triumph of light over darkness of good over evil.”
President Barack Obama released a statement about the holiday.
“Dancing,celebration and good food remind us that life’s greatest joys are the simple pleasures that come from spending time with people we love,” he said. “Contemplation and prayer remind us that that people of all faiths have an obligation to perform seva,or service to others.”
Reach reporter Jessica Wray at [email protected] or 202-326-9865. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.