Diwali San Antonio: Festival of Lights returned to La Villita on Saturday for a night of dance, music, parades, fireworks, and food from many Indian regions – one of the largest celebrations of the Hindu festival in the United States.

India, where more than 79 percent of the population identifies as Hindu, is a diverse nation of 29 states, a dozen languages, and 800 regional dialects. The world’s largest democracy is home to a multiplicity of cuisines, religions, and traditions.

“Each of these states have their own traditions and cultures, all coming together in San Antonio to celebrate [Diwali],” said organizer Kausi Subramaniam.

Subramaniam is president of Anuja San Antonio, the nonprofit organization founded in 2011 to foster the sister city relationship between San Antonio and Chennai, India.

Diwali, which is Hindi for “row of lights,” has grown over its nine-year existence in San Antonio, Subramaniam said. Initial expectations of 1,000 attendees were far surpassed in 2009, the festival’s first year, and vendors ran out of food within 45 minutes, she said.

Saturday, attendees expected to number more than 17,000 and enjoyed an abundance of staple favorites like samosas, chicken tandoori and biryani.

Suhail Arastu, arts and culture chair for Anuja, estimates that there are about 6,000 people in San Antonio that are from India or are of Indian descent.

A new San Antonio River Barge passes the dance performances at Arneson River Theatre during Diwali San Antonio: Festival of Lights.
A new San Antonio River Barge passes the dance performances at Arneson River Theatre during Diwali San Antonio: Festival of Lights. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

More non-Indians will attend the festival, “which is precisely what we wanted,” Subramaniam said. “The unique thing about this celebration is not that it is celebrated by people from different parts of India, but that we are able to bring it to the community at large in San Antonio,” she said.

“This actually feels like typical San Antonio flair,” said Evelyn Martinez, who attended Diwali for the first time this year with her friend, Mona Petitt. Both held steaming cups of chai tea.

They spoke of Indian friends of different faiths; Christian, Hindu and Muslim, attending. “It’s a Hindu festival, but it’s just celebrating India,” Petitt said.

Having grown up in San Antonio with a father in the military, Martinez said “I’m used to having neighbors of different ethnic backgrounds.”

On the festival’s main stage, Arastu emceed the “Parade of States,” which featured performers in colorful regalia and dances from 13 of India’s 29 states. Another 11 of India’s states were celebrated on the San Antonio River with barges decorated according to traditions and customs from each state.

“[India is] such a rich, vibrant texture of a nation,” he wrote in an e-mail, “a very multicultural, multilingual, multi-religious country” that’s “hard to capture.”

“I think here they represent almost everybody,” said Pranav Gupta who attended the festival with his daughter, Aanya, wife Roomina Tandon, and father-in-law Roopak Tandon. The family is from Dehradun, a small town north of New Delhi. Gupta looked forward to sampling his favorite regional dish: stuffed paratha.

Many non-Indians are first introduced to Indian culture through its cuisine, which contributes to a diverse food culture here that recently earned San Antonio a UNESCO designation as a Creative City of Gastronomy. Indian dishes were in abundance at the festival, along with spices, clothing, jewelry, henna, and artwork.

During the diya ceremony, floating candles were released onto the San Antonio River, along with wishes “for a bright future for themselves, and their families and friends,” Subramaniam said.

With his candle, Gupta said, “I wish for my family’s happiness, that’s the foremost thing for me.”

The Diwali festival helps different kinds of people learn about each other, Gupta said. “I hope not just in this country but everywhere else, people get to know about different cultures, different countries … after all, we are all just human beings living in different places.”

Roomina Tandon said the “heterogenous population” in San Antonio is similar to India’s diverse population. “Once you are here, it doesn’t feel like you miss your home,” she said of her native Dehradun. “I think it’s nice, as long as everybody lives in peace and harmony.”

Subramaniam grew up in San Antonio in the 1970s – a city unfamiliar with Indian festivals, traditions, and culture, she said. “Now people want to participate in it, which I think is amazing. It’s been an exciting change for me to see over the past few years in San Antonio,” she said, and Diwali has a lot to do with that.

Subramaniam offered advice for any San Antonian looking to further engage Indian culture beyond the Diwali festival: While continuing to patronize the many Indian and Pakistanian restaurants around town, residents might also visit Indian groceries to incorporate spices of the region into their own cooking, she said. “Though we tend to think of them as Indian,” she said, “the spices are rather versatile, and go well with other types of cuisine.”

Residents might also consider signing up for Indian music or dance lessons, said Subramaniam, who runs the local studio Kalalaya Indian Performing Arts.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...