Last weekend my husband and I had the unique opportunity to attend a Dewali festival in Oklahoma City. It’s an Indian Hindu tradition, and it was beautiful. Our dear friends Mickey and Kellie joined us. Here are some memories, incomplete though this writing will be. It’s just impossible to capture everything from such an extraordinary evening. xoxo
We entered the building at the back, walking through double doors and into a foyer, just like in any North American Christian church. (In fact I think this building used to be a Christian church.) To our left, three Indian men were seated at a long table, all dressed in colorful floor length garments. They smiled and bowed lightly to their folded hands, welcoming us.
The hallway in front of us was adorned on the floor with colored powder, mandala-like designs, abstract lotus flowers maybe, but other symmetrical images too. Tables, windows, children and adults were all covered lavishly with silks and linens and embroidered cottons in every color, mostly jewel tones. Lots of gold. Lots of pink with red and pink with purple, every shade of green and blue, more gold, and a few striking black ensembles edged in silver. Breathtaking, inspiring color everywhere I looked.
We wandered briefly before our friend Kiran appeared. Petite and smiling, she glided down that lotus-strewn hallway and greeted my husband and our friend Mickey. Kellie and I watched as she hugged and welcomed them and they smiled warmly at her, so much curiosity about the evening piquing. I could see the feeling of belonging wash over both men. Kiran directed all of us to remove our shoes. Piles of high heels, sneakers, boots, and flip flops were stacked and arranged along the far end of the long hallway. A few teenagers giggled and walked quickly through our group. I could feel that happy holiday energy.
Our husbands were ushered to the main auditorium to sit up front with the men. Inside, a visiting guru dressed in solid orange robes was already speaking, the language unfamiliar but soothing. Lilting and energetic.
Kellie and I followed Kiran. My eyes feasted on the parade of color, and every person who made eye contact with us smiled warmly. I felt happy, welcomed and loved.
This whole time God was whispering to me again about gentleness and Love in action, not just ideas. Real True Church, in this unexpected setting.
I cannot relay the full experience of the evening’s message, because even with some abbreviated translation we only caught snippets. But what we did glean was powerful, and I was thrilled to discover so much common ground with my own faith:
- Religion is not full spirituality; it is only a part of life. But it is important. Religion is the salt that gives life flavor.
- In true community, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you have; it only matters what you bring to the table, what you can do to help others, and how you contribute.
- Light dispels darkness. New life erupts from death. Good wins over evil, in the end. Love is it.
- Life on earth is filled with many tangled, curving, meandering paths offered by demons and evil, paths that lead to destruction, but only God (yes, singular) shows the path to salvation.
Since Kellie and I spent most of the first session on the back row, we had a glorious view of the whole room. We could see the small group of men up front, the gurus in orange, and the male children who spoke on stage (irresistibly cute). We saw dozens of women of all ages glide in and out, and we oohed and ahhed together over our favorite saris and scarves. We made secret plans for what we would love to wear, given the opportunity.
Kellie and I also smiled about the many ways this “church” experience was similar to our own American-Christian “church” experiences, things that, the more I think about it, are maybe just human experiences:
- People chatter politely even when there is a revered speaker on hand.
- Friends and family are happy to see each other, especially on a special holiday occasion like this, and you do not need to understand the language to understand the emotion.
- And they love to dress up in extra special outfits for special occasions. It was different, of course, but it sure brought back happy memories from all through my life (and my daughters lives) of wearing a dress to church that was purchased just for that holiday.
- Little children wander and play freely between the aisles. They just do. Here, though, we noticed that everybody helped. Instead of insisting that one parent do all of the corralling or correcting, all the adults in the room seemed to care for all the little children, and it was so gentle and loving. It was such a communal feeling that we couldn’t really tell who belonged to whom.
After a while the entire group exited this main (unadorned) auditorium and reconvened upstairs. We crowded happily into a room where everyone sat on the floor, men up front again and the women behind a dividing rope. I felt the excitement building and could also smell food fragrances wafting up the adjacent stairwell. (A delicious community feast would follow.) We all faced one wall that bore this expansive and ornate collection of icons. Wall to wall and floor to ceiling, three dimensional artwork, stunning stuff. They were all images with which I was somewhat familiar from literature or folklore. It was a carved and painted display of gods and goddesses, and it was breathtaking. In front of the artwork were tables strewn with food offerings as colorful and abundant as everything and everybody else. Also, dozens of strings of electric lights. A feast for the senses.
I want to mention here that every time Kiran or her husband anyone else from the community (Kellie and I received hints from friendly neighbors here and there) addressed their gods and goddesses, it was with a gentle tone of… not ambivalence… but rather, caution. I understand that vital intricacies can get lost in translation and language barriers, and these are sacred topics. So that could be part of it. But also, the more we learn about this faith the more we see that their beliefs are much more like our own than we had previously grasped. The Hindu God is actually singular and is manifested or personified in many different ways. There are myriad stories and practices which honor so many incarnations. This feels familiar, right? Okay, this is a fascinating topic for conversation. I have lots more to learn before I feel qualified to write about it. But please know that this community, these treasured friends, took us deep into curiosity about our common ground. And we appreciate that so much.
Seated on the floor surrounded by so many women in those luscious colorful garments, Kellie and I did our best to follow along. We prayed silently while they all sang, and we thoroughly enjoyed their happy songs. Children toddled around us, the gurus in orange swayed and bowed, everyone was happy. We absorbed it all and wondered together how our husbands were feeling. At some point we saw that they were being dotted on their foreheads with red ink and received woven bracelets.
I meditated with eyes wide open while the group sang in unison. I tried to guess what they were singing about. As if she could read my mind, an older woman behind me tapped the back of my left arm and leaned in, answering, “It’s a song to worship God.” She said this with firmness. I loved the clean, dark-denim sound of her voice.
During a part of the ceremony when the fluorescent lights were low and everyone was holding a small ghee candle, I couldn’t resist glancing around and behind us. So many beautiful dark brown faces, waterfalls of shining black hair, and ebony eyes illuminated by that firelight. It really took my breath away. The women were gorgeous beyond my powers of description. Glittering, glowing, calm and energetic.
We all rotated our candles in front of our seated selves, clockwise I think, and when I fell out of sync with the group, that same solid woman behind me offered gentle redirection. Later, my husband and I shared the observation that the prayers here closed just at the exact moment that our little ghee wicks extinguished themselves. Beautiful.
This evening offered us so much. We stayed long enough to meet more people, friends old and new, and Kiran loaded me up with a platter of delicious (I mean SO DELICIOUS) Indian foods and handmade candies. We were gifted books to study and were invited to Delhi, haha! Kiran and her friends answered every question we asked.
Eventually the four of us found our shoes and walked to the parking lot, the air cold now and smelling of snow. We drove to our respective homes, chattering about the event, and I ate all the candies on our way back to the farm. (So good.)
In the coming hours and days we had lots to distill. The experience offered far more than I can write about here, and we have all been hungry for the spiritual feast. I hope this writing at least marks the memory so later we can come back to it and summon the feelings, the new thoughts, the echoes and truths rediscovered.
In addition to so much else, Dewali tradition also celebrates the power of knowledge to win over ignorance, which is especially meaningful to me. We had first walked through those double doors curious but plenty ignorant. We left better informed, despite the language barrier, and I think that Love did most of the work. This community just welcomed and loved us, and softened us with genuine hospitality. Along the way God spoke to our hearts. He translated for us. We still have oceans of knowledge to gain, but this feels really good for now, and I am so thankful.
Happy winter, friends. Happy Thanksgiving week. Happy Advent (soon) and Dewali (belated) and happy everything. May light dispel darkness in your world. May Love overpower sin and worry and evil. May knowledge fill all the ignorance gaps.