Under a golden crescent moon on Saturday night, the 13th annual Diwali San Antonio festival saturated the trees, alleys and buildings of Hemisfair with rhythmic lights, traditional songs and dances and flavors of India.
The “festival of lights”, organized by Anuja SA also honors the sister city relationship between San Antonio and Chennai, India, formed in 2008. Sister Cities is a program designed to develop economic, cultural and technical exchanges between American cities.
During this period, it became the third largest Diwali festival in the world outside of India, according to organizers. Between 20,000 and 40,000 people attend the one-night event each year.
The San Antonio version of Diwali was a first for Parthiban Manoharan and Sumitha Parthiban, who were visiting their daughter from their home in Chennai, India. The couple strolled through the park with their one-year-old granddaughter while their daughter, Beneta Parthiban, helped welcome dignitaries to the festival.
“Having this event is like celebrating India, and San Antonio and Texas is doing everything to celebrate India,” Manoharan said. “We are so happy and proud to be Indians [and] that our feast is celebrated here.
The event began in 2009 during Phil Hardberger’s tenure as Mayor of San Antonio after leading a delegation to Chennai to forge a relationship between the two cities. After experiencing Diwali there, he asked several members of the Indian community living in San Antonio to organize a festival here.
“The idea is that symbolic lights will drive ignorance out of the world and be replaced by intelligence,” Hardberger said. “And I always thought that was something we might need here in Texas.”
Thousands of people attended the festival on Saturday, perusing food stalls selling chicken biryani and Indian fusion tacos, eyeing the fine silks and gold necklaces and intricate earrings sold by the merchants. Henna tattoo artists and selfie stations – one with bright orange and yellow marigold garlands – also drew crowds.
In front of a stage perched under the Tower of the Americas, hundreds of people watched dancers dressed in vibrant regional outfits perform traditional Indian dances, their bells or gajje, waving to festival-goers.
After the performance, 13 groups of people (representing various regions of this 1.4 billion country) and the San Antonio Indian Association placed the oil lamps, or diyas, in the fountains of the park. The floating diya symbolizes goodness and purity and a dispelling darkness.
Last year’s event took place virtually due to the pandemic. This year’s Diwali organizers, determined to hold the festival in person or not at all, have spread it across the park to encourage social distancing. The usual fireworks display was also banned to avoid tight gatherings of people.
Because the 2022 festival will coincide with India’s 75th independence anniversary, the event will be even better next year, said Vijaya Botla, who helped host the event. But she said she is still looking forward to Diwali SA.
“It’s so heartwarming because… more than half of the people who come here aren’t even Indian,” Botla said. “But they can experience Indian culture right here in San Antonio and I think it’s so wonderful that we as a city can provide that for them.
“For me, that’s the best part.”