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Night of lights
Duluth hosts traditional Indian celebration

DULUTH - White tents filled with patrons offering traditional Indian henna tattoos, pottery and jewelry littered the grounds of Taylor Memorial Park in Duluth on Saturday night.

Lights and candles glowed while traditional Indian music played as thousands gathered in the downtown area to celebrate an ancient holiday foreign to many Duluth residents.

The celebration was the first in the Gwinnett town. Cultures Across Borders, a nonprofit organization promoting cultural harmony, hosted the Diwali Festival of Lights celebration.

The Indian holiday stems from an ancient epic that tells of Lord Shri Ram who was banished from his kingdom by his stepmother only to be welcomed back by lights and festivities 14 years later as he returned as king.

"This is a true story and part of our history," said Apurva Shrivastava, director of strategy for Cultures Across Borders.

Shrivastava said the idea for a local festival came while talking with Duluth Mayor Shirley Lasseter just two months ago.

"We had a great showing for the first time," Lasseter said of the festival. "I have never seen such excitement. The men and women who put this together are just elated and rightfully so."

Lasseter estimated 3,000 to 5,000 attended the eight hour event.

The night was filled with music, traditional Indian dances preformed on the outdoor stage and a re-enactment of the return of Lord Shri Ram, plus food and carnival-like rides.

A circular design made of colored rice, called a rangoli, was created on a sidewalk topped with small bowls filled with burning candles.

"I love it," said Becky Samford of Duluth. "I'm very open to other cultures. It is a chance to experience something I don't normally experience in my everyday life."

Ram Singh, a volunteer at the festival, said the Festival of Lights compares to such celebrations as Christmas.

"This is the biggest celebration (in our culture)," Singh said.

Ashwani Saigal, a native of India who now lives in Lawrenceville, said while this weekend's festival was more commercialized than traditional Festival of Lights gatherings, the event was a fun experience for his family.

"It's not exactly the same," Saigal said. "In India, it's more of a family and friends celebration." The gathering typically takes place in the home, Saigal added.