Under a golden crescent moon Saturday evening, the 13th annual Diwali San Antonio festival saturated the trees, walkways, and buildings of Hemisfair with rhythmic lights, traditional song and dance, and the flavors of India.

The “festival of lights,” organized by Anuja SA also honors the Sister City relationship between San Antonio and Chennai, India, formed in 2008. Sister Cities is a program intended to develop economic, cultural, and technical exchanges between U.S. cities. 

In that time, it has grown to become the third-largest Diwali festival in the world outside of India, according to organizers. Between 20,000 and 40,000 people attend the one-night event each year.

The San Antonio version of Diwali was a first for Parthiban Manoharan and Sumitha Parthiban, who were visiting their daughter from their home in Chennai, India. The couple strolled the park with their 1-year-old granddaughter while their daughter, Beneta Parthiban, helped welcome dignitaries to the festival. 

“Having this event is like celebrating India, and San Antonio, and Texas, is going all out to celebrate India,” Manoharan said. “We are so happy and proud being Indians [and] that our festival is celebrated here.”

The event began in 2009 during Phil Hardberger’s term as mayor of San Antonio after he led a delegation to Chennai to forge a relationship between the two cities. After experiencing Diwali there, he asked several members of the Indian community living in San Antonio to organize a festival here. 

“The idea is that the symbolic lights will chase ignorance out of the world and be replaced by intelligence,” Hardberger said. “And I always thought that’s something we could need here in Texas.”

  • A woman dressed in traditional garb walks through the fountains at Hemisfair with her diya Saturday.
  • Participants wave to the audience as they proceed through the fountains at Hemisfair for the diya ceremony Saturday.
  • The water glows with warm light from the diyas.
  • Afsheen Siddiqui draws henna on Naajah Johnson's hand during the Diwali SA festival at Hemisfair Saturday.
  • Cooks plate warm food at the Biriyani Pot booth Saturday.

Thousands attended the festival Saturday, milling about food booths selling chicken biryani and fusion Indian tacos, eyeing the fine silks and gold necklaces and intricate earrings sold by merchants. Henna tattoo artists and selfie stations — one with strings of bright orange and yellow marigolds — also drew in the crowds. 

In front of a stage perched beneath the Tower of the Americas, hundreds of people watched dancers wearing vibrant regional attire perform traditional Indian dances, their ankle bells, or gajje, beckoning festival-goers.

Following the performance, 13 groups of people (representing various regions in that country of 1.4 billion) and the Indian Association of San Antonio placed the oil lamps, or diyas, in the park fountains. The floating diya symbolizes goodness and purity and a dispelling of darkness.

Last year’s event was held virtually due to the pandemic. The organizers of this year’s Diwali, determined to hold the festival in person or not at all, spread it out across the park to encourage social distancing. The customary fireworks show was also nixed to avoid tight gatherings of people.

Because the 2022 festival will coincide with the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, the event will be even better next year, said Vijaya Botla, who helped to emcee the event. But she said she always looks forward to Diwali SA. 

“It is so heartwarming because … more than half the people that come are not even Indian,” Botla said. “But they can experience Indian culture right here in San Antonio and I think it’s so wonderful that we, as a city, can provide that.

“To me, that’s the best part.”  

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.