Lighting candles, enjoying food and making laughter, Vassar students celebrated Diwali and Eid al-Adha, two of the most popular holidays in Hindu and Islamic cultures and faiths, respectively. The event took place Friday Nov. 8 in the Aula, and formed out of a collaboration among the South Asian Student Alliance (SASA), the Vassar Islamic Society and the South East Asian Students Alliance, along with the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. The organizers said the dinner this year placed a stronger emphasis on the holidays themselves.
SASA member Divya Pathak ’15 told how past years had been less successful in broadening guests’ knowledge of the holidays or their importance in the cultures. Previously the dinner had consisted of exactly that—just a dinner. Pathak understands that while food is an important in South Asia, it is not the sole bedrock of the culture.
Said Pathak, “Since it is celebrating Eid and Diwali we wanted to do more to incorporate and engage people who came to the dinner [so that they] learn more and take more away from it than just a full stomach.”
Pathak and SASA Co-president Saumya Bhutani ’14 shared the story of Diwali right before the eating started. The holiday holds different significances in different parts of the Indian subcontinent, but in the explanation Pathak and Bhutani gave, Diwali celebrates the return and coronation of Rama, avatar of Vishnu. The lighting of candles or lanterns, Pathak continued, is to guide the victorious Rama back home after having rescued his wife Sita and defeated the demon Ravana.
Meanwhile, Eid al-Adha, otherwise known as the Feast of Sacrifice, marks the celebration of Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son in accordance with a command of Allah; Allah intervened then intervened and required the sacrifice of an animal instead. People celebrate with feasts and acts of goodwill.
This was also the first year that the Eid-Diwali dinner was provided by Tanjore, an Indian restaurant in nearby Fishkill, NY. The restaurant that catered last year’s dinner, according to SASA Co-president Maya Khatri ’15, arrived an hour and a half late, just as students began trickling into the Aula.
The new restaurant was originally too expensive, and Khatri told how she and Bhutani had to haggle down from the restaurant’s original asking price. “It took some doing, as we were reluctant to spend more and they were reluctant to negotiate the price down, but in the end they gave us our price and included salad and yogurt for free!” wrote Khatri in an emailed statement. Dinner included dishes like chicken tikka masala, naan, gobi aloo and Mango Lassi.
The servers, members of the sponsoring cultural student organizations, had on traditional South Asian clothing.
Wrote Khatri, “It wasn’t planned we just wore traditional Indian/Bangladeshi/Muslim clothing from our backgrounds. Whatever we had in our closets that we might wear at home for this particular holiday.”
Right before the start of the dinner, Pathak invited students to light the candles at each of their tables. One by one, students lit their small circular candles and transported them gently to a central table upon which lay a rongoli design. Rongoli, a first for a Vassar Diwali dinner, is an art form from India where elaborate geometric motifs are meticulously created using grains of brightly colored powder. Students set down their candles in a circle on the table, enclosing the rongoli creation.
After the event, Pathak described how each year for Diwali her family would make lamps out of aluminum, and place ghee, an enriched butter from India, in them. The act of lighting the lamps symbolized the spreading of light and the welcoming of prosperity. She said she was reminded of times she had celebrated Diwali back home as she watched the similar candle-lighting ritual at Vassar.
“I think I really just love seeing people together at the tables enjoying, happy and sharing the space and experience together. Obviously its not going to be the same as an intimate family relationship, but it’s pretty close,” she said.
The candles also had a powerful effect for dinner attendee John Ellis ’15. Said Ellis, “There was something beautiful about celebrating light at a time just when the nights are getting longer.” He added, “Watching the ceremony filled me with a sense of warmth.”