In 2015, when President David Granger established the Department of Social Cohesion, he tasked it with the responsibility of creating an accurate cultural manifestation of Guyana’s motto, ‘One People, One Nation, One Destiny’. Since its establishment, the Department, which also holds responsibility for Culture, Youth and Sport, has worked tirelessly to ensure that all groups, regardless of race, creed or culture, are represented on the national level.
This edition of Government in Action explores one aspect of our country’s rich and diverse culture brought to Guyana by our Hindu brothers and sisters. Today Hindus across the country will celebrate the Festival of Lights, Diwali.
The cultural and historical significance of Diwali
There are many legends surrounding the origin of Diwali, but the most popular is the story of the return of Lord Rama, his wife, Mata Sita, and his brother, Lakshmana to the city of Ayodhya after a 14-year exile. Mayor of the City of Georgetown and Hindu Priest in charge of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, Pandit Ubraj Narine explained the cultural and religious significance of the celebration.
“It is [stated] in the Ramcharitmanas that when Mata Sita was kidnapped by a very great and powerful demon by the name of Ravana, her husband, who is the Lord himself had manifest to operate as a common man… The lighting of the clay lamps, diyas, is especially significant and sentimental as Diwali falls annually on the last night before the new moon, which is the darkest night of the year, Amavasya. The diyas helped alleviate the fear of darkness and cold by bringing light and warmth and marked the path for Lord Rama’s, Mata Sita, and Lakshmana return,” the Pandit said.
Pandit Narine also explained that the diya is very symbolic of the human body and mind.
“Our fore parents on the 5th of May, 1838 brought with them their culture, their religion, their scripture and… this [is especially] important festival, which we are all, as Guyanese, and the diaspora worldwide celebrate… Diwali has a very powerful meaning [for] us. It’s where we ignite the light… on the darkest night of the year… called Amavasya. There is no moon, or star and that is the reason why the diya is lit or ignited because the flame has a very powerful meaning… The clay represents the human body. The oil in the diya represents the flow of… blood [in] the human body. The wick represents the mind and the flame represents the way the mind thinks, whether good or bad… It’s a triumph over darkness, which many people [want] in their lives because if you place the diya in a very dark place… it will bring a big difference,” he said.
On the darkest night of the year, the lit diyas help alleviate fear of darkness and cold by bringing light, warmth, and guidance. During Diwali, rangolis, traditional Indian decorations made with colourful ground rice, are also put on display to bring positive energy, not only physically, but spiritually, to all Guyanese. This renewal of the mind, the Pandit said, has implications for Guyana’s people and leaders.
“As Guyanese, as leaders, as community servants, as religious leaders, people that want to see Guyana built, we have to ignite that special light within us so that we can… be like that flame and think positively so that we would [be] able to [not only] eradicate that darkness [from] our own life, but that darkness from others’ lives as well,” he said.
Pandit Narine also explained the significance of Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity, both material and spiritual. Goddess Lakshmi abides within the home to bring prosperity. As a sign of admiration Hindus would refer to women in their households by the name Lakshmi because of the divine power women bring to the home.
The Pandit offered this wish for Guyanese during Diwali.
“I want to say to my Guyanese brothers and sisters [that] at this moment our nation, our city is blooming. Let it… continue to be like the flowers. Continue to be like the diya and we all can work to have a better nation, every single one of us. Let us utilise our wisdom, our intellect, our intelligence to make judgement. We must not worry and be fooled by the propaganda that’s spread out there by those… asuras… Let the light awake within your mind and let no one dictate your life… Let us work together with this great Government, with our Ministers, with the Mayor and City Council and let us keep Guyana like a diya to continue in that flame, in that frame of mind to better all Guyanese so that we can have a better life. Shub Diwali,” he said.
Diwali: a Guyanese cultural cornerstone
Diwali has been a cultural cornerstone in Guyana for many years. Guyanese around the country dress in traditional Indian wear and light their diyas to welcome in the celebration. The festival is a special time for Guyanese, as it is a celebration that shows Guyana’s rich diversity. Technical Officer at the Department of Social Cohesion, Ms. Pamela Nauth explains.
“Here in Guyana… we celebrate it… with a lot of excitement and pomp. We look forward to the motorcades… The different Mandirs would host the motorcades in different regions… The Grand Motorcade happens on the evening [before] Diwali… This is something that brings people together again. At Social cohesion we talk about unity, harmony, coexistence, people uniting and coming together. When you look at people coming out [to see] the motorcade on that specific night… you would see the see walls are lined [with people]. The streets are lined,” she said.
Diwali, not only represents new beginnings for our Hindu brothers and sisters, but it can bring newness into the lives of all Guyanese.
“The Hindus believe it’s a new year, so, its new beginnings. It’s an opportunity for us to forget and to forgive people and look forward to things that can build our country [and] build us as individuals, build our communities… Diwali has a strong message in terms of Social Cohesion, fostering and promoting wellbeing in communities and in the individual. We see this as an opportune time for people to really come together for a common cause, not only for Diwali, but after Diwali because its [a] new beginning. Let’s look at things from a different perspective. Let’s look and see how we can develop further. What are the things that we can do to bring us [together] as a nation,” she said.
Diwali, Ms. Nauth said, provides us with a much-needed time of reflection.
“That inner light in each one of us, often times we don’t take it upon ourselves to reflect what [it is] that we have to offer [or] what it is that we as the individual can contribute… I think this is a great time for us to do that reflection, look at that inner light in each one of us, realise that we have people that we can depend on and count on, our family members, our colleagues, our friends, the extended environment. These are people that, if we are struggling with something, we can… say [that] there is somebody that I know that can assist me, someone I can reach out to. And this is what social cohesion is about. If we’re going to have a socially cohesive society, we need to depend on each other. We need to know that there are people there for us,” she said.
A message from the Sari Queen
Many years ago, the Guyana Divya Jyoti Association hosted an annual pageant during the days leading up to Diwali to ring in the Festival of Lights. The aim of these pageants was to crown a Sari Queen, who would be the cultural representative for the year to come. After a nine-year hiatus, Ms. Dhanwanttie Amisha Tajeshwar was crowned Sari Queen. Ms. Tajeshwar fondly recalled her favourite parts of the festival.
“The Guyana Divya Jyoti Association, last Saturday, hosted their Sari Pageant 2019 along with their motorcade and there… I was crowned as 2019 Sari Queen… What we were hoping to put out there is… a queen who would be able to spread culture, Indian culture, Hindu culture… Diwali is a very good platform for me to do so… So, we as Hindus believe the lighting of the diyas dispels all darkness and it basically brings peace into the home,” she said.
The Sari Queen encouraged Guyanese of all backgrounds to embrace the meaning behind Diwali, embracing the light that shines in person.
“Diwali is… one of my most favourite holidays and I love the food! I can tell you. I just love the sweet meat especially! [The] advice I’d give to the public out there, Hindus or non-Hindus, I would just say let’s come together [to] celebrate Deepavali… It signifies… ‘deep’ meaning light and ‘avali’ meaning a row. [It’s] a row of light and that means we’re dispelling all darkness. Let us celebrate unity. Let us celebrate love… The lighting of the Diya represents purity… I think every human being has some good in them and this diya ought to burn or… ignite all negative influence in our body… in our thoughts and in the people around us because everyday we tend to be in some sort of negative energy,” she said.
Ms. Tajeshwar offered this message to all Guyanese.
“I would like to wish [Guyana] a Happy Diwali because Diwali means we ignite all darkness and I wish that your home may be filled with only purity. Happy Diwali,” she said.
Through the celebration of Diwali and the gift of light, our Hindu brothers and sisters have given us an opportunity to come together and dispel hostility and replace it with peace that promotes and preserves our national unity. Let us continue to overcome social evils that would pull Guyana and her people apart. Instead, we will ignite the Light of Unity in each one of us and continue to embrace the contributions that all of Guyana’s peoples make to this nation’s cultural mosaic.