The Hindu Temple of Minnesota, in Maple Grove, can accommodate more than 5,000 worshippers, but has hosted much smaller celebrations since the imposition of restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19. Credit: Courtesy of the Hindu Society of Minnesota

The forecast calls for rain this Diwali. The weather seems likely to match the mood: COVID-19 case numbers are surging and Governor Tim Walz just announced a new wave of restrictions on public gatherings. 

The inclement weather alone would not have dampened the celebration on Monika Vadali’s block in Plymouth, were it not for the pandemic. She and most of her neighbors are Indian immigrants, and the Hindu festival of lights marks one of the most important celebrations of their year. 

“It’s one of the first festivals that comes when it gets cold,” Vadali said. “I look forward to it. It has religious significance and there’s normally a neighborhood get together. One of our friends plays music, we hand out sweets, and—no matter what the weather—we go out and do fireworks on the driveway.”

Fireworks are one of the traditional ways Hindus celebrate Diwali. And as Minnesotans, Vadali and her friends usually celebrate in any weather. “When there was a break in the rain, we would just quickly go out and do some fireworks,” Vadali said. 

This year, however, will be different. “The enthusiasm isn’t there,” Vadali said. “I didn’t even buy fireworks.”

The week running up to Diwali set records in Minnesota for new coronavirus cases: Thursday saw more than 7,000 confirmed cases. On Friday, the state implemented a slate of new restrictions announced earlier in the week. The next day marks the start of Diwali. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, which erupted across the world less than a year ago, has radically changed the way people connect. This Diwali, Hindus in Minnesota are experimenting with technology to connect with their community and their traditions. The community’s hope: to keep the light shining in dark times.

A 7,000-year-old tradition and a new temple

Pooja Bastodkar is the president of the Hindu Society of Minnesota, which she describes as the “hub of Hinduism” in the state. Every year, Diwali is one of the most popular festivals among the more than 50,000 Hindus who live in Minnesota.

“Hinduism is supposed to be the oldest religion in the world, and Diwali started about 5,000 B.C.,” Bastodkar said. The holiday, she explained, commemorates the homecoming of a prince named Ram, after years of exile. The kingdom celebrated his return by lighting lamps throughout the palace and around the kingdom: the first Diwali.

“Fast forward 7,000 years, Ram is looked at as a god and a prince,” Bastodkar said. “He’s celebrated. But at the same time, it’s a time for celebration with family, cleaning, lighting up your home, good food, festivities.”

The Hindu Society maintains one of the largest Hindu temples in the United States, in Maple Grove, serving tens of thousands of Hindus in the Twin Cities, Bastodkar said. The 43,000-square-foot building can accommodate 5,000 worshippers. When it opened in 2006, the temple represented a new era for the Hindu community in the Twin Cities.

Masked worshippers celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi outside the Hindu Temple of Minnesota, August 22, 2020. Credit: Courtesy of the Hindu Society of Minnesota

Mythili Chari came to the United States from Bangalore, India, a little over 30 years ago and lives in Plymouth. For more than a decade after her family arrived, Diwali was a relatively sedate, family experience. “We’d get together with friends and family, we’d wear new clothes, light lamps and celebrate and party,” she said.

After the Temple opened, Chari said celebrations became something larger: community events that blended multiple traditions. “We have different celebrations in different parts of India,” Chari said. “With the temple, we were all amazed at how differently we were celebrating.”

“We would have fireworks outside the temple and inside we would set up beautiful celebrations and sing and dance and talk to everybody and congregate. Lots and lots of people,” Chari said. 

Religious ceremonies on the day of Diwali would fill the temple to capacity, while community members hosted each other for days before and after the festival. 

Bhakti Modi, who lives in Chanhassen, attends the Hindu Temple of Minnesota. “Thanksgiving doesn’t have anything on Diwali, because Thanksgiving is one day. With Diwali, you’re eating for like 10 days,” said Modi, “This is a nightmare for diabetics.”

Looking for lights? Turn up the brightness on the screen 

With COVID-19 cases surging across the midwest and Minnesota, many celebrations have been cancelled. In some ways, this year’s holiday looks like it will present a return to the time before the temple, Chari said. The rain forecast caps the disappointment many Hindu Minnesotans feel. 

“The whole world is in the same boat,” Vadali said–and that includes India. Only the United States has reported more cases of COVID-19 than India. India also has registered the third-highest number of deaths, after the U.S. and Brazil. 

Vadali describes scaled-down plans: “The pooja”—or worship ceremony—“we do at home, we will still do, it is for our wellbeing and our prosperity, so we’ll definitely do that. We’ll light lamps and put them around the house inside and outside, as weather permits.”

But Diwali is also a time to celebrate growing rather than being stagnant, Modi said. This year, many Hindus are incorporating technology into their celebrations.

Modi works at a software company. She said that “90 percent of people” in her community have been resistant to new technology.

“The good thing that happened with 2020: The 90 percent have caught up and gone, ‘Oh, computers are good.’ ‘Oh wait a second, video calls are effective,’” Modi said. 

Her family is using Zoom to stay connected.

“On Saturday, which is Diwali, we’re going to do a huge family call with all my family members across the world, across the U.S., in India, and other places. We’re going to get together on a Zoom call and eat together and talk together,” Modi said. 

“Before, we would have called and talked for a few minutes, but now I get to see my grandparents on Diwali and I get to talk to my uncles and aunts and cousins I haven’t seen in years.”

Before the pandemic, members of the Hindu Society of Minnesota celebrate Diwali in the Minneapolis Convention Center ballroom, October 19, 2019 Credit: Courtesy of the Hindu Society of Minnesota

Traditional Indian dance, streamed live from the kitchen

Technology is also being used for larger gatherings. The Hindu Society typically hosts a massive Diwali event at the Minneapolis Convention Center with hundreds of traditional singers and dancers. In its place this year, the society organized a virtual celebration, Diwali Dhamaka. (Bastodkar explained that “dhamaka” literally means “boom,” but more generally suggests a party.)

The virtual event—filmed in living rooms, kitchens, and otherwise empty dance studios—featured traditional singers, Bollywood-style dance routines, and one 10-year-old girl playing piano while wearing a blindfold. Bastodkar said the event has been viewed almost 7,000 times on Facebook and YouTube since it was live streamed November 7.

The social distancing regulations necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 have forced a return to smaller celebrations typical before the Hindu Temple of Minnesota was completed. But new technology offers a way for Minnesotans celebrating Diwali to stay connected. And the community Hindus have built in the Twin Cities in the last 15 years has proved resilient.

“Because of the temple, we know what could be,” said Chari. “We were from different parts of India, but we came together for Diwali Dhamaka and we kept our tradition going.”

The other day, Chari was on a Zoom call with family around the world in Bangalore, London, North Carolina, and more. “We could see their decorations and their lamps,” Chari said. Those lamps she saw still bring “joy when the sun goes down faster,” even from the other side of the world. 

Logan Carroll is a journalist who reports on Minnesota's right-wing media ecosystem and other stories. Follow him on Twitter, @Unbalanced_MN.