Diwali: Celebrating new beginnings in Vernon

Sikhs light candles, or diyas, on Diwali to symbolize light over darkness. A win over evil power. (Josh Winquist)
Councillor Nahal explains the importance of Langar to councillors Gares, and Anderson. Also seen in the photo is Councillor Akbal Mund and his family. (Josh Winquist)
Volunteers preparing Langar, the practice of serving food to the congregation and guests of the temple. (Josh Winquist)
Two men bow at the altar of the Guru Granth Sahib, the book of Sikh scriptures.(Josh Winquist)
On Sunday, Oct. 27, Vernon City Councillors Dalvir Nahal, Kari Gares and Scott Anderson observed the Sikh ‘Festival of Light’ know as Diwali. (Josh Winquist)

Dalvir Nahal carefully places a small lighted candle at the entrance of the North Okanagan Sikh Temple.

She is one of the hundreds of people who gathered at the Vernon temple last Sunday to observe the final day of Diwali.

Resting on a bended knee she explains the act of lighting the candle (or the ‘diya’) symbolizes removing darkness. “A win over evil power,” she said with a smile. “It is a celebration of new beginnings.”

A five-day Festival of Light, Diwali is typically celebrated in late October or early November and is observed by millions of Sikhs, Hindus and Jains around the world.

“The festival has different meanings for both Sikhs and Hindus,” said Nahal, who practices Sikhism. “For Sikhs, it marks the day that Guru Hargobind Ji, the Sixth Sikh Guru, was freed from imprisonment. Sikhs often refer to Diwali as Bandi Chhorh Divas, or the day of liberation. And for Hindus, it is one of the major festivals of Hinduism. It spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness and good over evil and knowledge over ignorance.”

Vernon is home to a large Sikh community and the celebration of Diwali has, especially in recent years, become a more inclusive event in the Greater Vernon community.

Inside the temple, strangers are greeted like friends, the old are embraced by the young and the few have turned into the many for this day of celebration.

For this occasion, Nahal, who is a Vernon City councillor, is accompanied by a few of her fellow councillors Kari Gares, Scott Anderson and Akbal Mund, who is also Sikh and has come with his family.

Removing their shoes and covering their heads with a scarf, worshipers and visitors alike enter the Gurdwara, the room where Sikhs gather for worship.

The Gurdwara is filled with the gentle sounds of music.

From the Guru Granth Sahib — the book of Sikh scriptures — hymns and chants are recited in song accompanied by instruments.

It is an essential part of Sikh worship called the Kirtan and is what helps to create a peaceful feeling inside the Gurdwara.

One by one, the worshipers enter the Gurdwara and bow before the altar where the Guru Granth Sahib is placed. They then take their seats on the floor, facing the altar.

During a service, older children take turns waving a fan over the Guru Granth Sahib purifying the air around the altar.

Brimming with pride, Nahal carefully explains each aspect of the service to her guests.

“This is the way it is always,” she said.

When the service is over, the worshipers head to the basement where food is offered — known as Langar — to the congregation and guests of the temple.

The practice is based on equality and dates back to the beginnings of the Sikh religion where its founder Guru Nanak Dev Ji rejected the caste system that separated people for meals.

“It doesn’t matter if you are Sikh or not,” Nahal said. “You can always come to a temple and get food anywhere in the world.”

Gathered at a table, Nahal the councillors are treated to a feast of Indian dals, curries, chapatis and sweets.

The food is prepared by volunteers and is shared freely with all.

“We need to understand each other,” North Okanagan Sikh Temple president Sucha Jassi said. “We need to know about each other. We need to get together and be close to each other not apart. We need to show love for each other.”

Jassi said it is important to introduce the Diwali celebration and the Sikh culture to a new generation; to new people.

“You don’t have to believe what we believe but you can still come to the temple. We are human. We are the same.”

As the worshipers and guests enjoy the Langar, children zip in and out of the crowded room, weaving in and out and around the groups of people gathered. The light-hearted playfulness and sounds of children laughing only add to the sense of community and togetherness.

After the Langar, the crowded temple clears and the mass of worshipers and guests gather in the parking lot for a brief show of fireworks.

Standing amongst the crowd, Gares and Anderson look up at the flashes of colour.

“It was very nice of Coun. Nahal to kind of give us a play by play to what is happening and why those things are happening. It is important to give context so we can really enjoy what is happening,” Gares said of her first Diwali experience. That is something to be very proud of, to know that we have that in our community.”

The explosions of light high above chase away the darkness, acting like the diya; symbolizing light over dark, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance.

Another Diwali celebration has come and gone in Vernon.

— Josh Winquist

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