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In Trinidad, Diwali Lights Up Like Christmas

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, she was a sensation on YouTube. She was nominated for a coveted MTV Video Music Award. So why do so many people have issues with rapper Kreayshawn? Could it be because she calls her crew the White Girl Mob? We'll find out in just a few minutes.

But first, today marks the last and biggest day of Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights celebrated by followers of the Hindu, Jain and Sikh religions. The holiday is marked by tens of millions of South Asians around the world with fireworks, candles and sweets. And we wanted to take you to one Diwali festival that opens to this sound every year.


MARTIN: That is the national anthem of Trinidad and Tobago played on steel drums, or pans. You might be surprised to find out that Trinidad - which is in the southern Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela - celebrates the holiday in a big way. There, Diwali is a national holiday, just like Christmas and Republic Day. And for the past 25 years, the day has been celebrated with a festival that is now attended by more than 50,000 people.

To find out more about how Trinidad celebrates Diwali, we caught up with Ravi Maharaj, one of the organizers of the country's largest festival. He's also a Hindu spiritual leader who goes by the name Sri Raviji(ph).

Welcome to the program, and Happy Diwali.

RAVI MAHARAJ: Shiv(ph) Diwali to you and to America from Trinidad and Tobago.

MARTIN: Thank you so much. And for those who don't know much about Diwali, will you just tell us a little bit more about the origins of the festival?

MAHARAJ: The word itself mean the row of light, the rows of light. And it refers to two different threads(ph) that is being - that are being celebrated in Trinidad and Tobago. One is the birth of Lakshmi, and so it celebrates the Lakshmi through pujas and through readings of the text and through fasting and, finally, on the night, lighting of diyas.

But it also celebrates the return of Lord Rama. Rama was exiled and was returning to his kingdom to claim the kingdom, and, in celebration, that is also one of the reputed origins of Diwali.

MARTIN: So if we were lucky enough to be in Trinidad right now instead of here, where we are, what would be some of the things we'd be enjoying right now?

MAHARAJ: Well, I think you would have been in a home that would have invited you, who would have asked you when you arrive to kindly take your shoes off. And you will have fasted. And when you enter, your host would be very busy, couldn't pay much attention to you because the puja always coming up, and you'd be saying, hmm, I could help. And you started helping putting diyas with us on the arches, bamboo arches all across our lawn. And then you would wait until dusk, where we do the final puja and start to light.

Wonderful. And what about for food?

Oh, well, I think because you...

MARTIN: Because we've been fasting, so...

MAHARAJ: Because you are fasting...


MAHARAJ: ...very, very distracted, because you will be smelling the food. And because it's so much curry and high spices, it will be smelling all over the place. And during the puja, we are supposed to, of course, focus on our puja, not on the smells and those tantalizing tastes at all. So it's quite a battle.


MARTIN: I see. It's kind of a spiritual battle, isn't it?



MAHARAJ: And you're going to have a very, very wide fare of things, salt and pepper and sweet. And we have, from the indentured experience, a lot of food from North India that we are just finishing cooking and are just covered and waiting for eating after lighting of the diyas.

MARTIN: Well, you know, one of the things that you're pointing out, though, is that Trinidad is a country where there is a mixture of people from many different backgrounds. As I understand it right now, the country's about 40 percent people with origins in India and about 40 percent to trace their roots to, you know, the African Diaspora. So it's a country that celebrates, you know, a mixture of cultures. And how do those cultures intermingle right about now with Diwali?

MAHARAJ: Well, you've got the numbers quite correct. So it's really - we have harvested the whole world in our tiny country. And we find that quite now, in a big way. For example, Diwali, with it becoming a statutory holiday in 1966, we find that it became an opportunity to present ourselves to the nation and to invite the nation into our ethos and our cosmos and our home, and that has been increasing incrementally over the years. So that right now you have people, for example, Diwali (unintelligible), which is the biggest function for Diwali commemorating Diwali. It opens with a steel band which is an African origin, and it's a national instrument, and it opens with a steel band with the national anthem every year. So these are little gestures that on the way have become now our norm, but has which also participated in the processing of the original people.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for taking time out of the, your - I know this is a very busy time for you, so thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Before we let you go, we mentioned, you know, earlier that you are also a spiritual leader in addition to, you know, helping to organize the big, you know, festivals for the community. So there's a spiritual teaching during the festival, I take it, so do you know what your message is going to be?

MAHARAJ: Yes. The message I would send out to the world is the whole world is one family and this interconnection of all things of the universe is a reality that could bring us all together and realize that everything has worth and value and ought to be treated with respect, and also to urge it and let everything to realize its greatness.

Ravi Maharaj is the organizer of Trinidad's largest festival, celebrating Diwali, a Hindu festival of lights. He is also a spiritual leader, known as Sri Raviji. He joined us on the phone from the capital, Port of Spain. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

(Foreign language spoken) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.