If you happen to be in India in October or November, one cultural attraction you cannot miss is Diwali, also known as the festival of lights. The five-day event marks the start of the Hindu new year, and this year, due to the Hindu calendar, it occurs November 11–15. But Diwali celebrations can also be found outside South Asia: in the Western Hemisphere, Guyana is your best bet to experience the festivities. According to the 2002 census, 43.5 percent of the 751,000 inhabitants of this former British colony are of Indian descent—tracing their heritage to the indentured laborers who arrived in 1838 to work its sugar cane fields. Hinduism is Guyana’s largest religion, practiced by 28.4 percent of the population.
Hindu mythology offers various reasons for the celebration of Diwali; generally, it symbolizes the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. Houses are illuminated by small clay oil lamps called diyas, streets echo with the sound of firecrackers, and sweets are distributed from neighbor to neighbor.
Today, Diwali is an official holiday in Guyana. In addition to the usual rituals to welcome the new year—sweeping out houses, buying new clothes and exchanging greetings—the main attraction is the large pre-Diwali motorcade. It is a procession of elaborately lit and decorated trucks and floats, atop which often sit costumed figures representing Hindu deities. The lively affair is accompanied by singers, dancers and hundreds of thousands of viewers of all ethnicities and faiths along the route.
This tradition in Guyana began in 1974 and has been organized since by the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha, a religious, cultural and social organization that raises the profile of Guyana’s Hindu community. Vindhya Persaud, assistant general secretary of the Dharmic Sabha, says that the celebrations “bring Diwali closer to people and bring people together.”
View a slideshow of Guyana’s pre-Diwali motorcade. All photos courtesy of Ian Sassoon.