“It’s For Everyone”: Swarthmore Students on Diwali, The Festival of Lights

8 mins read
Photo shared by Devyani Mahajan ’23 featuring students who attended the Diwali event holding firecrackers and standing in front of the rangoli patterns at Parrish Hall.

Every year, around October or November, Hindus all around the world partake in a centuries-long tradition called Diwali. Notorious for Bollywood music, delicious food, and sparkling firecrackers, Diwali brings families and friends together in celebration. On Friday, Oct. 21, Swarthmore’s Deshi club, Swarthmore’s South Asian cultural group, hosted its own Diwali event. 

Diwali, also called the Festival of Lights, derives from the Sanskrit word “Deepavali,” meaning “row of lights.” Diwali has no single origin story and is celebrated by many different regions for various reasons. Most commonly, Diwali is believed to be about celebrating the triumph of good over evil. 

In Northern India, many believe that the lights are for the hero of the Ramayana epic, an incarnation of the God Vishnu, named Rama who rescues his wife, Sita, from an evil demon king named Ravana. The Diwali lights are fabled to help guide Rama and Sita home and welcome them with open arms. 

The days Diwali is celebrated are based on the Hindu lunar calendar. Each year, the holiday begins just before the arrival of a new moon between the Hindu months of Asvina and Kartika. Traditionally, Diwali celebrations last five days, called Dhanteras, Chaturdashi, Diwali, Govardhan Puja, and Bhai Dooj, respectively. Each day brings about traditions of praying, decorating, eating, dancing, and lighting firecrackers.  

The Phoenix interviewed international students about Diwali, all of whom share the same love and enthusiasm for this tradition. For example, Aadvik Shukla ’26 explained that he loves Diwali for the sense of togetherness and community that it brings. 

“I love being with my grandparents, my parents, and my sister. The entire family comes together, and we have a meal together. The meal tradition is kind of like Thanksgiving. More than just the religious aspect, it’s about celebrating with your friends and family and coming together to have a good time,” he said. “And everyone can celebrate – it’s not just limited to Hindus, Indians, or people from a certain community. It’s for everyone.”

Devyani Mahajan ’23, co-president of Deshi, also described Diwali as an inclusive event rather than a solely Indian celebration. 

“We really want to emphasize that all are welcome to Diwali and Holi parties and everything. People can bring their friends, people can share that experience with others who haven’t necessarily grown up celebrating Diwali or Holi, or really, even knowing what they are. I think creating a sense of inclusion is so important,” she said. 

This year, the Diwali event at Swarthmore occurred right outside Parrish Hall. Several students came to dance, light sparklers, eat good food, and celebrate. Chait Motwane ’25 shared that he loved Diwali at Swat because all people of South Asian heritage — also known as Desi people — come together. 

“The reason why Diwali at Swat is the best is because it’s the main Desi Fall event. It’s not even about Diwali, it’s more about having a Desi festival because people just get together and dance for like two hours. And everyone, the entire Desi community shows up. I didn’t even know there were that many Desi kids on campus,” he said. “[It was] not just students, but the Desi professors came as well … honestly, it was a very wholesome night, just to see everyone come and have carefree fun.”

Planning the Diwali event was no easy feat. Co-President Mahajan described the month-long process of obtaining funds, catering, booking the space, and ordering materials to ensure the Diwali celebration came together. This year was especially challenging because much of their funding was cut due to recent SBC reallocation efforts, forcing Deshi to look into other sources of funding for their Diwali event.

“For planning events, such as Diwali, it’ll typically start a month beforehand. This year[’s] funding was cut, almost halved and Diwali was pretty much entirely funded by the IC instead of SBC. 

We received $550 in funds [from SBC] for food for the entire year, but the Diwali catering itself cost $915,” she explained. 

Mahajan also explained that Deshi needed a faculty advisor for their group to plan this celebration, but they had to reach out to another non-Hindu religion advisor to fill that role. 

“We had to get in contact with Umar [Abdul Rahman], the Muslim religious advisor [because] there isn’t a Hindu religious advisor, but Umar has been so fantastic,” she said.”

When asked if he had any suggestions for the future, Motwane proposed having more Desi gatherings — even when there are not any large-scale holidays like Diwali. 

“The Diwali celebration was more of a Desi thing than a Diwali thing. Diwali was the occasion, but we don’t have to wait for Diwali to have those kinds of gatherings where you just come and dance, eat Desi food, or listen to music and talk. It’s really about the people rather than the specific festival or date,” he shared.

In terms of planning around holidays in the future, Mahajan suggested that the administration could be more accommodating to cultural festivities so that students can fully partake in these celebrations without being overly concerned about academics. 

“A bunch of religious or cultural holidays, like Diwali, that would not often be [publicly-recognized] holidays, are not necessarily accommodated into the [school calendar] schedule. They’re just highlighted … I think having a greater level of communication between administration, professors, and maybe affinity groups, for these events will be better … I think for students who want or need to take the time off, there should be a greater sense of accommodation,” she said.

The image description in this article was corrected on Nov. 3 at 12:35 p.m. to more accurately represent the students in the photo.

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