Diwali is celebrated by millions of people worldwide, including Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. It is the most important annual festival in India, where 2.8% of Australia’s population was born.
Himanshi Munshaw Luhar is the founder of Foodie Trails and originally hails from Mumbai, the home of Bollywood on India’s western coast. Himanshi and her family are from the Gujarati ethnolinguistic group.
Diwali is a huge celebration for Himanshi and her family, with preparations starting weeks in advance and festivities lasting a few days. It is a time to spend getting together with family and enjoying good food and special desserts.
LEXIGO interviewed Himanshi about her Diwali experiences in Australia and India:
“For Gujarati people, celebrations include prayers and ceremonies to honour Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth,” says Himanshi.
New Year also falls during the Diwali festive period.
“On New Year's Day, we perform the tradition called ‘counting houses’, where we visit older relatives to wish them a happy new year, and children receive envelopes with a small token amount of cash,” Himanshi explains.
“Then, on the day of Diwali, we have prayers, a big lunch, spend time with family and have more food at dinner time.”
“Traditionally, after sunset, there were firecrackers, but last time I was in Mumbai for Diwali (6 years ago), there were a lot less firecrackers, but everyone still hung out with family and had lots of food,” Himanshi shares.
“It’s a lot of spending time together, punctuated by prayer ceremonies. We also wear new clothes for Diwali or New Year’s Day."
“Our outfits have to be traditional Indian clothes and not black or white – it’s very colourful.”
These traditions mean a lot to Himanshi, and it’s something she is trying to pass on to her children.
“Preparation at my mum’s house would start weeks in advance, making snacks to have sitting on the table so you can constantly graze. In Australia, we still try to get together with friends and family."
“I make a point of cooking Indian desserts in my house with my kids to keep the connection. They don’t have to ask mum’s permission to eat dessert during Diwali.”
Food is a big part of Diwali celebrations and a highlight for passionate foodie Himanshi.
“In my region, my mum’s household is 100% vegetarian, but my siblings and I eat meat when we go out."
“Mum would make a paneer dish, yogurt-based curries, little vegetarian samosas and puri, our deep-fried bread. My mum makes triangle-shaped puris – they’re rolled out, folded into triangles and fried,
and then you dip them in sauces. We also have a special Gujarati dish called Undihu, which is made in layers in a pot, then you turn it over."
“There are also lots of fried snacks, including savoury and sweet fried dumplings and fafda, thick noodles that fluff up, kind of our version of chips. My husband’s side has Chakri, savoury spiralled rings made from steamed rice and wheat flour mixed with butter and spiced, then deep fried. There’s also lots of nuts - during Diwali, we give them as gifts and have them sitting on the table for visitors."
“My absolute favourite dessert is Mohanthal – it’s made from chickpeas and ghee, sugar and milk is added, then it’s poured into a big tray then cut into pieces to make little pastries or cakes decorated with edible gold, pistachios and almonds."
India is now the birthplace of the second-largest group of Australia’s overseas-born population after England, overtaking China and New Zealand in the 2021 Census. Australia’s Indian-born population has more than doubled in the last decade, increasing from 337,120 people in 2011 to 710,380 in the 2021 Census. Diwali celebrations in Australia have grown, too.
In India, we get public holidays for Diwali, so everyone has time to catch up, but in Australia it’s not a holiday, so we have to try to get time off from work and school or wait for the weekend to do a celebration.
“For years, I’ve hosted a Diwali get-together for friends and family, but this year, I’m working so I’m trying to find another time to celebrate.
“Generally here in Australia, people get together, drink alcohol (we don’t drink in India), enjoy lots of good food and try to go to the temple on New Year’s Day.”
“When I first moved to Australia nearly 20 years ago as an international student, we didn’t have established connections, so we Indian students got together to try to create the atmosphere of Diwali. The big Diwali celebration in Federation Square in Melbourne has been happening for a long time, and now there are Diwali celebrations in every local council; lots of communities create Diwali celebrations, so there are a lot more opportunities to celebrate even if you’re not as established in Australia."
“We have lots of options, from kid-friendly activities to banquets, so you can pick and choose the kind of celebration you want to go to. They run over different dates, so you can always catch something."
Still, I think in Australia, there’s much more scope for our various multicultural communities to embrace each other’s traditions, and so can workplaces. If you come across someone celebrating Diwali, don’t shy away from wishing them ‘Happy Diwali’ – we wish people ‘Merry Christmas’, so we love our special celebrations to be acknowledged too.
Himanshi Munshaw Luhar is the founder of Foodie Trails, which offers cultural food walks, festivals and events in Melbourne: foodietrails.com.au