If you wandered into the Greater Convention Center from Oct. 14 to Oct. 15, you may have been greeted by the sight of three girls performing a traditional dance salutation to the Hindu elephant-god, Ganesha, on one of the Center’s massive stages.
The girls are dressed in traditional Indian sarees all in varying shades of reflective jewel toned blues, greens and purples. Their hair was tied back with distinctive white-floral decorations winding down their braids and under the stage’s large fluorescent light, the gold jewelry they adorned reflected into the crowd creating an almost shimmer like effect into the attentive audience. The small statues of the dances was juxtaposed not only by their presence which captured youthful fun and dedicated faith, but the behemoth poster behind them with the words, “Festival of India,” written across.
The Festival of India originated in the parking lot of John B. Cary elementary in 1982, according to a description given to Richmond Magazine. Back then the festival was just a small gathering of Richmond’s small Indian community. 35 years later, what was once a modest gathering and celebration of culture, has become a massive two-day annual festival attracting thousands who seek community and culture.
This years festival took place on first floor of the Greater Convention Center. As with previous years, the festival was hosted by the Hindu Temple of Virginia based in Glen Allen, and was entirely volunteer run.
“I’ve volunteered, I don’t know, maybe six or seven years now,” said volunteer Goti Patel. “I do it because it’s for our community, it’s a way to keep in touch with culture. Even if someone is sponsoring the festival we are not vendors here to sell our stuff, we are volunteers for good cause.”
The festival is run as a nonprofit, with proceeds helping the temple in various philanthropic efforts and in community outreach efforts. According to Rahari Ramagiri, who attends a local high school and has grown up around the temple and the festival, volunteering year after year is one of the many traditions in the community.
“I’ve volunteered for longer than I can remember and it’s the same thing every year but I’ve seen it bigger and more diverse, ” Ramagiri said. “When I was younger, I did the classical dances on the stage but as I got older, I’ve stopped doing them so now it’s exciting to see the younger kids get a chance to do something that has become just part of life.”
Volunteers commandeered the dozens of food stands which featured a multitude of traditional foods. Variations of well-known Indian dishes and snacks, like biryani, curry, lassi and samosas were present in abundances. However, the festival stuck true to its theme of authenticity and food stands also highlighted equally traditional, though lesser-known dishes to the western world like Kachori, a flattened fried flour ball stuffed with lentils and spices and falooda, a dessert made with chia seeds, rose syrup and varying flavorings.
“For real, I come for the food. I mean really, look at it,” said festival attendee Lakshmi Aggarwal. “No, I’m joking, kind of. It’s wonderful to find comfort and culture in tradition and it’s something I didn’t quite appreciate until I left the area for school.”
Agarwal grew up in northern Virginia before attending university and later settling in California. She said she comes home twice a year and attending the Festival is a way to connect with her family after long periods spent apart.
“It’s rare that my visits line up with the festival but it’s nice when it does,” Agarwal said. “Also, Dilwali is next week which makes this even that more fun because I can feel people’s anticipation, it’s like our Christmas.”
Just as Agarwal notice, the 2017 Indian Festival had an additional tone of festivity and excitement since it is just one week shy of Dilwai — one the holiest holidays in the Hindu religion. Diwali is also commonly called the “Festival of Lights,” and celebrates the return of the Rama, the incarnation of the god Vishnu, after winning a battle against the demon king, Ravana.
“It doesn’t matter that I’m not Indian, everyone here is open and welcoming,” said Brianna Brown who attended the festival for the second year in a row with her husband. “I came Saturday and I’m here today because we’re meeting new people, hearing new sounds, trying new foods and learning about traditions like Dilwali.”
In addition to traditional foods, songs and dance, the festival featured a stands selling jewelry and clothing — similar to the traditional sarees of the young girls dancing bhangra on the stage — for competitive prices. This market-style selling of clothing and everyday goods is commonly found in India.
“This is how we buy clothes and foods and anything else we need whenever we go back to India,” said Vindhya Patel. “There is definitely a sort of ironic comfort in this competitive chaos happening so far away in Richmond.”
The festival emphasized not only celebrating Indian culture in Richmond and exposing non-Indians to the subcontinent’s rich history, but in exploring universal similarities between people.
“Our cultures are completely different but it’s also so similar I’m surprised.” said Abeba Haile, an Eritrean immigrant who settled in the area five years ago after living in Washington D.C and Dubai for fifteen years. “My family isn’t Hindu and we don’t speak Hindi but the spices used it the food, the value of culture and family and even this market set up like the old cities back home and in the Middle East it’s very similar.”
Siona Peterous, Spectrum Editor