When she moved to Bergen County from India four years ago, Suvarna Avadoota didn’t know if she would find many other immigrants from her home country. But on Sunday the Mahwah resident was among thousands to attend a Diwali festival where she was reminded of the large Indian population in the county.
“We miss India, but when we gather together we feel as if we are back in the same country,” said Avadoota, whose two young daughters were among several performers who did traditional dances at the festival. “I’m really happy to be here, and it’s good to get together with other Indians.”
The Diwali Mela 2016 festival was the first Bergen County-wide event organized by the India Heritage Center and the Hindu Samaj Mandir Temple of Mahwah to mark the Indian festival of lights, which is celebrated every year in the fall. Observers of the five-day holiday, which celebrates good defeating evil, light lamps and candles, gather with family and eat traditional Indian foods. This year, the holiday begins on Oct. 30.
“This is the first time in Bergen County that all religious organizations and community organizations are participating under this banner, the Indian Heritage Center,” said Dinesh Khosla, president and one of the founders of the temple in Mahwah. “Ten families started the temple 20 years ago and we have over 3,000 members now.”
Bergen County is home to 24,973 residents of Indian heritage, while Passaic County has 10,863 people of Indian descent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Indian-Americans represent the largest Asian group in New Jersey as a whole with 292,256 calling the Garden State home in 2010, according to the census.
Sunday’s strong winds didn’t stop thousands from driving to Overpeck County Park in Leonia where they boarded county shuttles that transported them to the site of the festival in the newer section of the park in Ridgefield Park. There were musical performances and dozens of children and teenagers who wore bright-colored lehnga or ghagra, long flowing skirts, while they performed the traditional dances of the Asian country.
People walked around the park where vendors sold traditional foods and sweets, and showcased Indian clothing and jewelry.
At the festival, organizers honored Gurbir S. Grewal, the first Indian-American to become Bergen County prosecutor, and also set aside a few minutes to talk about the U.S. Postal Service’s new Diwali Forever stamp, which was unveiled earlier this month.
Bollywood film star Nargis Fakhri also attended the event and held a meet and greet.
Khosla, president of the Mahwah sanctuary, said the temple had held Diwali festivals for the past several years, but last year it drew 800 people, so it was time to look for a larger site.
He said that the Indian Heritage Center was formed to establish the Museum of the Indian Journey to the U.S., which is committed to capturing, promoting and preserving the experiences of the Indian diaspora in the United States. But he said the festival was also a project of the center.
Dr. Gurcharan Sadhu, an anesthesiologist and a member of the Sikh gurudwara in Glen Rock, was among those who were glad to see the large turnout.
“The county people can see how vibrant the Indian community is,” Sadhu said.
Sid Shakya and Bibhash Mulmi, both 19, arrived in Bergen County from Nepal earlier this year to study at Ramapo College as international students. The teenagers said that they had enjoyed their time here, but they had missed the food from home, which is similar to Indian food. So at Sunday’s festival they ate samosas, dosas, and panipuri, a deep-fried Indian bread filled with chutney that made them smile and remember the meals of their homeland.
“I miss the food a lot,” Mulmi said.
Both said they were surprised by the number of people of Indian heritage they had seen at the festival.
“It’s really good and the event has brought a lot of Indian people together,” said Mulmi, who attended with seven other students from the college’s South Asian student club. “I was not expecting a lot of Indians.”
“I’m feeling like I’m at home,” added Shakya as he carried a wooden stick of stacked freshly fried potato chips.
Val Harrison and Tonya Johnson, of Englewood, said the food was largely responsible for drawing them to the festival.
“I really love Indian food,” Johnson said. “And I also love the jewelry and the Indian culture.”
John and Minna Schmitz, of West New York, said they had seen a digital sign at the park earlier in the month announcing the event. Minna Schmitz, a Hackensack High School teacher of English as a Second Language, said she too was surprised with the large turnout.
“It’s really nice to see,” she said.