Celebrating intercultural traditions through Diwali, the Festival of Light

Glass globes filled with glowing marbles
Iridescent decorations symbolizing the central theme of Diwali: light.

On Saturday, November 14, the College Union Building ballroom was bright with lights, Bollywood music, and decorations as students across campus came together to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light. This celebration was organized by a group of South Asian international students from Nepal and India. It was also co-sponsored by the Office of International Student Services (ISS), the Office of Student Activities & Greek Life (OSAGL), and the Center for Religious & Spiritual Life (RSL).

Diwali is an annual Hindu tradition that is celebrated on the night of the new moon, preceding the Hindu month of Kartika. It is celebrated by millions of people around the world and is one the largest celebrations in Hindu culture. It is a joyous festival, celebrated over the course of five days. Diwali falls on the third day, the day of Lakshmi Pooja, which holds special significance for Hindus. During this weeklong celebration, people light fireworks, attend worship services in temples and distribute traditional sweets among their families and friends. Light is a central theme of Diwali as it spreads the message of hope and love. Rooftops are lit with traditional clay lamps called diyas to symbolize the message of hope.

Diwali celebrations have become a tradition on Gettysburg College’s campus over the past years.

“Intercultural and global events give an opportunity to both American and international students to come together around a big celebration like this,” said Brad Lancaster, director of ISS. “They also allow international students to share their culture in a way that other people can experience and understand. Often, lifelong friends are built around these events.”

Pratikshya Prasai ’23 applying a henna design to another student's hand with a plexiglass barrier between them
Pratikshya Prasai ’23, an international student from Nepal, applies henna art design to a fellow student’s hand.

To continue the Diwali tradition, students and departments brainstormed ways to make the event possible while adhering to public health and social distancing guidelines. Henna stalls were set up with plexiglass safety screens, allowing Nepali students to safely apply traditional henna art designs on people’s hands. Many students especially enjoyed painting clay lamps (diyas) using brightly colored acrylic paints. To recreate colored floor patterns known as Rangoli, common in Hindu households, students decorated circular cardboard “tiles” with colorful sand art. Traditional cuisine was also distributed in individually packaged boxes, ordered from a local Nepali restaurant in Harrisburg.

Students sitting in the ballroom making arts and crafts at the Diwali celebration
Students decorating sand art crafts and diyas with acrylic paints.

“It felt nice to see so many people take part in something that wasn’t their culture,” said Sangya Lohani ’23, an international student from Nepal. “Even if they did not understand the meaning behind the Diwali activities, students were open to trying everything.”

Lohani has been involved in helping with Diwali event planning since her first year at Gettysburg. As one of the few South Asian students on campus, she takes pride in being able to share her culture with other students.

Diwali was one of the most highly attended events this semester. Many first-year students came out to take part in the festivities in the ballroom. “I heard about Diwali through the Office of Residential & First-Year Programs (RFYP) and I had an amazing time learning about my friend's cultures and getting a henna,” said Autumn Chassie ’22. “My favorite part was trying the food and listening to Bollywood music.”

Student with henna art design on her hand
Autumn Chassie ’22 with henna art design on her hand.

The event lasted three hours and ended with spontaneous dancing to Bollywood music. The Diwali celebration was a paragon example of breaking down cultural barriers and celebrating the diverse global traditions of international students at Gettysburg College.

Learn more about International Student Services and the Center for Religious & Spiritual Life at Gettysburg College.

By Shanzae Sarwar ‘21
Photos courtesy of Caitlin Lindsay
Posted: 12/02/20