What a fascinating experience my husband, Arnie Bigbee, and I had attending the Diwali Indian Festival of Lights at the Sri Venkateswara (Balaji) Temple this week in Edina.
As a life-long Presbyterian, I had never attended a Hindu event. My opportunity came at the invitation of Madhu Reddy, President of SV Temple. Here’s what led up to that invitation.
Last year the Edina Human Rights and Relations Commission (HRRC), of which Arnie is a member, chose to be a more inclusive city when they asked the City Council to consider regarding Hindi, Muslim, Jewish and other religions’ observances as they do Christian celebrations.
Long story short, the City Council agreed. Scott Neal, City Manager visited the temple to determine which holidays they would like to be considered. As a result, no public meetings are held in Edina during the observance of Diwali, the most important Hindu Celebration of Lights.
Fast forward, Reddy invited Mayor Jim Hovland, his wife, LaRae (wearing a beautiful blue Indian silk shawl), Neal, City Council and EHHC members. Also present was Mary Brindle, City Council, Metropolitan State University President Sue Hammersmith and her husband, Al Uniacke. Several students from Metro State were also in attendance.
There was an abundance of activities going on in the 30,000+ square foot, three-story temple at 7615 Metro Blvd. Music which sounded ‘different’ to my ears, alluring traditionally dressed women in saris chatting in groups, lots of bright eyed excited children running all over, elaborate gold temples, the whiff of simple, yet exotic (to me) food, beautiful flower arrangements and areas for prayers.
The building, a former spa, has intriguing halls, foyers and rooms, every one of which was a buzz of activity. One unexpected experience at the beginning of the evening was the custom of removing your shoes at the door. Now that I know, next time I will wear thick socks as not every area is carpeted. And there will be a next time.
Before having official photographs taken, all guests were invited to apply a bindi mark to our foreheads. When asked the meaning behind the tradition, I was told it is a protection from ‘evil eyes’.
Particularly exciting and colorful, like the stage and background art work, was the program in the temple’s ground level. It started with a welcome by representatives from the temple including Madhu Reddy, Temple president.
Mayor Hovland, as Chief Guest—who shared that it was his third visit to the temple—lit the first candle. Soon music and brightly dressed performing artists from pre-school aged children to professional singing and dancing adult artists took to the stage.
Swara Nivedana from India just happened to be visiting his brother who lives locally. Nivedana is known in India as a TV performer, singer for movies and CD recording artist. He sang several songs to the enjoyment of those gathered who participated by clapping to the beat of his music.
Next up was a fascinating and exquisite dance by a professional interpretive dancer. Her flowing waist length hair, red and white head piece, bejeweled face, turquoise and gold costume was riveting to watch. Even though I didn’t understand the words to the music she was dancing to and sometimes singing, her gestures communicated the story.
However, like the Christmas holiday programs I’ve attended all my life, it was the children who ‘stole the show’. Several small groups of excited young dancers performed with grace and glee. First of the young performers was a group of four teenage girls, all with long black ponytails, black sherwanis (trousers), red silk tops with gold waist sashes and shiny black boleros. They performed with energetic charm a fusion dance from the movie Slum Dog Millionaire.
The next group was made up of six grade school age barefoot boys with short black hair dressed in orange dhotis (trousers), short sleeved v-necked wine red shirts and matching orange waist sashes. They performed a complicated dance to the amusement of the growing gathering and their proud parents.
Next, three darling young grade-school girls with long shinny turquoise, gold and maroon dresses danced, their instructor supporting their every movement discreetly from the front row.
When my curiosity got the best of me, I turned around and began asking questions of the man sitting behind me. Kalyan Achyutuni, Edina, who works for Oracle in Minneapolis, was attending with his beautiful wife, Sireesha and daughter. He was wonderfully accommodating and informative which added to the enjoyment of my experience. By providing me with the Indian words and English definitions, he helped educate and inform me, thus building a bridge between our cultures.
According to the temple’s website, “Hindu temples have served as important centers of personal and spiritual development for thousands of years. The foremost purpose of a temple is to provide an auspicious space to feel connected to the divine. American Hindu Temples have become a vital center for the arts, education and service work. It is here that traditional forms of music and dance can be performed, enjoyed and passed on to future generations.”
I was impressed with the warm and friendly welcome we received from all those who met and saw us. People went out of their way to greet us and make us feel comfortable.
After more than an hour and a half of the program, Madhu Reddy invited us to the lower level for a vegetarian meal of rice, vegetables, yogurt, savory crackers and Laddu, a round, sweet dessert. While not all Hindus are vegetarian, I learned meat is not served in the temple.
Fireworks are always a part of a Diwali celebration and this night was no exception. As we along about 1,500 others made our way out to view the fireworks, finding our shoes at the door was an amusing experience.
As Edina’s population becomes increasingly diverse, I can’t think of a better way to learn about different cultures than spending time, face to face with our Hindi neighbors. Members of Edina’s temple will graciously welcome you. And you don’t have to wait until next year’s Diwali’s celebration.
To learn more about the Sri Venkateswara Temple, visit their website at www.svtemplemn.org.
Hours of the temple:
Monday - Friday: 9:30 a.m. - 12 noon, 5:30 - 8 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday: 9:30 a.m. - 8 p.m.