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Diwali ‘Festival of Lights' Celebrated Across US

The festival celebrated in India and South Asia to mark the Hindu new year is becoming more and more popular in the United States

Diwali, the "Festival of Lights" celebrated in India and across South Asia to mark the Hindu new year and which this year falls on Oct. 19, is increasingly celebrated in the United States.

Cities such as New York, Chicago, San Diego, San Antonio and others host celebrations of the festival, often featuring performances from dancers and artists and even Bollywood stars, lighting of traditional oil lamps called diyas, and fireworks.

The growing popularity comes as estimates say there are more than 2.2 million Hindus of Indian origin living in the U.S., according to the Hindu American Association.

"On this actual Diwali Day, many people wear new clothes and go to temples to offer prayers for global prosperity, exchange gifts and entertain neighbors," Murugappa Madhavan, founder and executive director of the San Diego Indian American Society, told NBC. 

Diwali has great significance in the Hindu culture, symbolizing victory over evil and the triumph of knowledge over ignorance, Madhavan said.

The festival, which falls between October and November each year, runs for five days and is usually celebrated on the third day. This year it lands on Oct. 19, but celebrations take place throughout the fall. Several U.S. cities are planning or have already hosted Diwali celebrations. 

The city-sponsored Diwali festival in San Antonio, Texas, says it draws more than 15,000 people each year. The free event, DiwaliSA, will be held on Nov. 4 this year and features fireworks, Indian cuisine, diya floats and other entertainment.

In New York City, a Diwali celebration in Times Square on Oct. 8 saw Bollywood stars giving free concerts, shopping, dancing and other cultural performances, as well as food and drinks from all over South Asia.

The Rubin Museum in New York City will host “24 Hours of Sacred Sound,” a 24-hour celebration of Indian classical music starting on Oct. 21 at 10 a.m. Visitors can peruse the galleries, participate in meditation and sunrise prayer, and even sleep beneath the artwork. 

For a more active celebration, New Yorkers can head to Queens on Oct. 29 for a dance party with DJ Rekha, a London-born DJ who has been credited with bringing bhangra music to the U.S. A classical dancer will also teach “traditional Kathak dance moves and bhangra folk dances mixed with hip-hop,” according to the website. Cooking workshops, henna painting, Indian handicrafts, and Indian food will also be part of the celebration.

In Chicago, The Federation of Indian Association Chicago rang in the holiday on Oct. 1 with a live Bollywood concert, fashion shows and shopping, bringing more than 3,500 people from the area, said Sunil Shah, founder and president of the Federation of Indian Associations Chicago. Bollywood celebrity Richa Sharma was one of the featured singers.

"In such stressful and turbulent times with so much violence and conflict going on around the world, this festival of Diwali conveys the message of brotherhood and unity," Shah told NBC.

On the West Coast, Seattle will put on “Diwali: Lights of India” on Oct. 21, an indoor festival showcasing artists, Indian dance lessons, face painting, puppetry shows, and of course, Indian cuisine.

Los Angeles will host its own Festival of Lights at City National Plaza on Oct. 19, kicking off at 10 a.m. with a vendor fair and a special performance at noon.

San Diego celebrated its 10th annual Festival of Lights celebration on Oct. 14 in historic Balboa Park, attended by nearly 10,000 people, according to Madhavan of the San Diego Indian American Society.

The festivities began with the opening of 54 large brass lamps representing many faiths, regions and eras. Throughout the day there was dancing, music and drama, and the evening ended with the lighting and procession of 1,008 lights.

"This is one way we share our culture with our brothers and sisters... and use the knowledge to contribute to the society that we are a part of," Madhavan said.

In 2016, the United Nations headquarters in New York City commemorated Diwali for the first time. Some other places holding events to observe the holiday include Chantilly, Va., Irving, Calif. and Jersey City, N.J.

At the White House, President Trump lit a diya lamp Tuesday to mark the occasion in the company of Indian American members of his administration. Former president George W. Bush started the custom of observing Diwali at the White House, but the first president to attend the ceremony and light a lamp was Barack Obama. The lighting of the lamps on Diwali, light cutting through darkness, represents good prevailing over evil.

In the Hindu religion there are several explanations for the origin of Diwali. For some, it celebrates the return of Lord Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, to his kingdom after 13 years of unjust exile, Madhavan wrote on the San Diego Indian American Society's website. Others say that Diwali represents the god Krishna killing the demon Narakaasura or that it marks the fall of the demon king Bali, killed by Vishnu.

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