Dubai’s multi-cultural growth shines as Diwali begins: Community leaders

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Diwali, the famous Indian festival of light, usually celebrated with crackers, gifts and sweetmeats, returns to Dubai with much-anticipated pomp following a brief lull owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Al Arabiya English connected with some Indian community leaders in the Gulf city, home to over three million from the Asian sub-continent, to understand what the festival stands for now ahead of the celebration today.

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Traditionally celebrated by the Hindu, Sikh and Jain communities, the multi-day festival symbolizes the triumph of good over evil or light over darkness.

“Diwali in Dubai is special,” Dr Aman Puri, the Consul General of India, told Al Arabiya English.

Affirming a widely believed large-scale return of Diwali celebrations post-COVID, Puri said, “the Indian diaspora are eager to go in full swing with their celebrations this time after scaled-down events in the last two years.”

The vibrancy of the festival is best displayed on the streets of old Dubai, primarily Karama and Bur Dubai, where apartment balconies sport an array of colorful LED lights, clay oil lamps and flower decorations.

Long queues were spotted across florists, sweet stores and jewelry shops leading up to the occasion in many Indian neighborhoods in Dubai.

UAE residents who observe the intricacies of the decades-old traditions ensure a spotless house with fresh decorations, availability of a diverse selection of sweetmeats, new clothing for family members, gifts for friends, and engaging in group prayers for prosperity to the Hindu goddess of wealth, Lakshmi.

However, in Dubai, a city inhabited by over 200 nationalities, the primarily Hindu festival is celebrated with as much pomp by many of the city’s nearly ten million-large population.

The Indian consulate, for instance, organized a “special reception” for the local diplomatic community and “Emirati brothers and sisters to mark ‘International Day of Diplomats’ with a Diwali spirit,” said Puri.

In another sign of transcending cultural and religious boundaries, the Indian consulate has partnered with the city’s Department of Tourism (DTCM) to organize fireworks across tourist hotspots and provide unique shopping and dining experiences.

“It has gained wide popularity with tourists and residents,” the consul general said.

A tale as old as time

“Our elders always reminded us that the late Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum visited our homes to celebrate Diwali among us,” recalled Lalit Karani, the honorary chairman of Dubai’s first Hindu temple.

The Hindu place of worship was built in 1959 on land allotted by the late Dubai ruler. Praising the city’s hospitality, Karani noted how the temple “witnessed the growth of Dubai like no other.”

Hindu worshippers visit the Dubai Hindu Temple on April 29, 2021. (File photo: AFP)
Hindu worshippers visit the Dubai Hindu Temple on April 29, 2021. (File photo: AFP)

“Over the past couple of years, we have had the heads of state come around and acknowledge the celebration and allow us to integrate closely with them once again,” claimed the temple chairman.

“Every year, over 10,000 devotees flock to the Shri Krishna Temple to seek the Lord’s blessings… Now that Dubai has successfully helped bring the pandemic to a close, we are all free to congregate and celebrate,” said Karani.

“From the days of having to burst crackers for the children secretly to the point of complete acceptance and support [by the local authorities] has by far been the biggest celebratory change,” remarked the honorary chairman of the decades-old temple.

People release fireworks while celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, October 19, 2017. (File photo: Reuters)
People release fireworks while celebrating the Hindu festival of Diwali in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, October 19, 2017. (File photo: Reuters)

“The lights installed at everyone’s homes make the sky light up like never before. Dubai surely knows how to be outstanding at this, even here, building upon building all over Dubai look like they are ready for the next global event,” he told Al Arabiya English.

A festival for everyone

Another community leader, Surender Kandhari, Chairman of Dubai’s Guru Nanak Darbar, passionately explained the history of the festival’s relevance to the Sikh community.

“Diwali is doubly important for us,” said Kandhari in a chat with Al Arabiya English. The Gurudwara welcomes thousands of UAE residents through its doors during the celebration.

“Since the Gurudwara opened in 2012, every year we celebrate Diwali with great pomp,” said Kandhari, crediting the UAE government with aiding its success as a “community center” for people of all beliefs.

Backed by a long history of service to the community, the Sikh place of worship offers free food in a large hall throughout the day by employing cooks and volunteers in a community kitchen called ‘langar’.

People break their fast in the langar, the Sikh term used for community kitchen, at the GuruNanak Darbar Sikh temple, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Dubai, United Arab Emirates May 23, 2019. (File photo: Reuters)
People break their fast in the langar, the Sikh term used for community kitchen, at the GuruNanak Darbar Sikh temple, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Dubai, United Arab Emirates May 23, 2019. (File photo: Reuters)

“The society in the UAE is very inclusive. So, every single celebration of ours is done with everybody in mind; we celebrate Diwali, Christmas, New Year, and even Ramadan,” he said, adding that Iftar is made available for all 30 days in the Sikh place of worship for those who observe the Islamic tradition.

For Diwali, the Gurudwara is expecting nearly 40,000 attendees at its prayer hall and community dining place, with support from the Dubai Police and Roads and Transport Authority for security and traffic management, the Gurudwara chairman said.

With festivals like Diwali fostering a sense of cross-cultural understanding between the various communities and their traditions, Kandhari said that the government supports these activities to a great extent.

“Each religion shows us how to live together, how to exist together, how to support each other.

“Festivals like Diwali allow us to forward these aspects,” Kandhari said decisively.

Karani agrees and noted: “Diwali celebrations have grown in leaps and bounds like the city of Dubai. We as a community have never felt away from home for the warmth, openness and hospitality extended by the local communities.”

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