Decked up in colourful traditional outfits, many Indians – particularly Hindus – recently celebrated Dussehra, an auspicious festival that symbolises the victory of good over evil. As Dussehra and Diwali are the two most prominent Hindu festivals, it’s a time of the year when most Indians wish to be with their families. International students, especially the September intake, were dearly missing home and found solace in a few celebrations organised by different Indian student/community societies in the city.
Neeru Rani who came to Leeds in September decided to attend a Navratri event organised by the Indian Students Union of her university, on Dussehra. Rani said:
“I hail from Punjab and Navratri garba isn’t as popular in my city as in Gujarat. But I got the opportunity to learn some garba steps and enjoy quality time with the Indian diaspora in this foreign land.”
Dussehra in Leeds
The nine-day (Navratri-Nav means nine and ratri means nights) festivities concluded with Dussehra, one of the most prominent festivals of the Hindus. In Indian mythology, the goddess Durga fought a battle with a demon, Mahisahsura for nine days and eventually killed him.
While garba (Gujarati folk dance) is organised in almost every part of India (especially the North, West, and central region on all nine evenings) the Bengali community believe that the goddess comes home for nine days. The tenth day is celebrated as Dussehra/Vijay Dashmi which marks the victory of King Rama over the demonic ten-headed King Ravana who had kidnapped his wife, Sita.
The preparations for Diwali (festival of lights) begin from this day onwards as it’s celebrated exactly 20 days after Dussehra.
“I’m celebrating Dussehra for the second time in Leeds. But this is the first time that my university organised the Dussehra programme for the Indian students”, explained Vraj Prajapati who was elated with this initiative as he was missing his home. Prajapati came from York to celebrate Dussehra with friends in Leeds.
Many Indians also visited the Hindu temple in Leeds and attended rituals too.
Video calls to attend prayers and Ravana ‘Dahan’
As India is four and a half hours ahead of the UK, several Indian students who are living away from their family stayed up late at night to attend certain rituals, virtually. Burning a Ravana effigy is deemed a significant part of the festival. As this cannot be done in Leeds, those who were homesick enjoyed the spectacle on video call.
“Ravana was an extremely wise king. But it was because of his evilness that he was eventually defeated. Burning his effigy is symbolic of the victory over evil. Since childhood I’ve been witnessing it every year, so without it, the festival felt incomplete”, said another student, Dipesh Pandya who relocated to the UK in January this year. He also participated in virtual ‘Shastra pooja’ (weapon worship) as its integral part of the tradition. Weapons, instruments, vehicles and tools are also worshipped on this day, said Pandya.
Fellow student Hanee Shukal also stayed upas late as 1am to attend some traditional Dussehra rituals through video call. “I attended aarti at the Hindu temple in Leeds which made me feel extremely connected to my roots despite being thousands of miles away from home,” she said.
Civic Hall hosted ‘Light it up’
The Civic Hall building was lit in red lamps as a symbolic manner for the Hindu community’s Dussehra celebration as a couple of hundred Indians gathered at the iconic Civic Hall in Millenium Square, on Tuesday.
While the community has been celebrating the festival on a smaller scale in the city every year, this turned out to be the first time that an event was organised at the prestigious building.
The Lord Mayor, Al Garthwaite, various councillors, and religious leaders presided at the event as guests. They lit a lamp as they congratulated the community.
“This is the first of many more occasions where you will be joining us here at the Civic Hall”, said Garthwaite, the 129th Lord Mayor and 20th female mayor.
She extended a welcome to all strangers adding that “everyone is equally welcomed” in Leeds. Although the event was free of charge, the guests were asked to fill in their details to reserve their space, as the hall has a limited capacity.
“Rain is inevitable. Therefore, we wanted to ensure that the people don’t face any issues. We had 250 bookings and a good number of people were on the waiting list”, said organiser Debbani Ghosh who is also the CEO of Association of Blind Asians and has been living in Leeds for 25 years. There was also a performance from Ananya Roy who has been practicing various dance forms performed to classical songs.
The event concluded with an aarti (recital of religious hymn) and guests enjoyed Indian snacks afterwards.
Food and festivities go hand in hand
No celebration is complete without food and Indians are known for their large spread of traditional cuisines.
Every region has a variety of cuisines and the spread prepared on this day is also linked with prosperity and luck. It’s a vegetarian affair for the Hindus and the spread mostly includes – potato sabzi with puris (deep-fried bread), pindi chole (made with chickpeas), dal (made with lentils) makhani, desserts including-Jalebi, shrikhand which is made with strained yoghurt, gulab jamun, oxnut kheer (a type of rice pudding), badam (made with almonds) halwa, purani poli, besan laddoo/halwa, and jaggery dosa are also often consumed on this day. Yash Khatiwala, who moved to Leeds in September planned a get-together with a group of Indian friends to celebrate their first festival away from home.
“India is a country of rich culture. Since all of us come from different parts of the country, and every region has a different tradition, we have planned to share stories of unique rituals from our state and play some traditional indoor group games”, said Khatiwala, who along with his friends cooked their traditional dishes and relished them.
Donning a traditional sherwani, French student, Antoine,experienced Indian culture for the first time in Leeds and enjoyed every bit of it thoroughly. He managed to learn the traditional dance moves in around half an hour before giving it a shot.
Students belonging to various nationalities also enjoyed grooving on some traditional folk songs with their Indian friends.
Shengxuan Ji who moved to Leeds from China recently for his studies had never thought he would be enjoying the traditions of China’s neighbouring country in Europe, “My friend suggested that I wear a traditional outfit for the occasion and happily lent me one of his kurtas. I’m not into dancing but I really enjoyed the vibe and just being there cheering them on”, he smiled.