Leicester consists of a diverse community of 280,000 people. In 2001, people of Asian origin formed the largest single ethnic group in the city, forming 30% of the total population, compared to a national average of 4%. This figure ranks Leicester as having the largest Indian population of any local authority area in England and Wales. For the past 27 years, Leicester has hosted the largest Diwali celebrations west of Mumbai.
15%, 11% and 4% of Leicester’s residents considered themselves to be either Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, compared to a national average of 1%, 3% and 1%.
Diwali is often referred to as the Festival of Lights – an important five-day festival in Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism. Occurring between mid-October and mid-November it is an official holiday in India and many other parts of the world.
The Diwali lights in Leicester were switched on almost two weeks ahead of Diwali day which will be celebrated on the 5th November during 2010. In the UK, Diwali Day falls on the same day as Bonfire Night which also uses light as a central theme to celebrations. The practise of using light and fire is a universal theme celebrated across many culutres. The resulting uplifting mood is intended to ward off the cold, dark, evil nights of winter.
Similar to the recent festival of Dashera, the festival of Diwali also celebrates the victory of good over evil. For Hindus, where as Dashera celebrates the victory of Lord Rama over the demon king Ravana – Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Rama to his kingdom after the victory.
In Sanskrit, the name Diwali is a contraction of the word Deepavali, which translates as ‘a row of lamps’. People celebrating Diwali light small clay lamps known as Divas, wear new clothes and share sweets with family and friends. Some Indian communities begin the (financial) new year on the first day of Diwali, hoping for prosperity throughout the following year. It is particularly apt then that alongside a massive effort from the local Council, the Diwali celebrations in Leicester are sponsored by the financial institution Santander.
Belgrave Road – otherwise known as The Golden Mile, is a major artery into Leicester city centre. A large bridge – Belgrave flyover was closed from 11:00am on the day of the Diwali lights celebrations to allow the construction of a massive stage at one end of the road.
Belgrave Road is an excellent area for shopping. It is known as the Golden Mile due to the high number of shops selling golden Asian Jewellery. There are also plenty of shops selling beautiful beaded, sequined, shimmering Asian clothing alongside lots of good restaurants cooking fantastic spicy meals.
Even though the celebrations took place on a Sunday evening, the pavements were experiencing as much footfall as a city centre on a busy Saturday afternoon right before Christmas. There were hawkers on every street corner offering a variety of battery-powered, rainbow-flashing plastic swords or wands – one for £6 or two for £10. A lot of families were out and about – of which the majority of parents soon gave in to pester power from their children for these fragile, gaudy looking objects.
Every single child seemed to be armed with an infinite number of boxes of Fun Snaps, adding a constant crackle to the air. Plenty of these tiny practical jokes failed to explode when thrown by the children, so soon there was a constant crackle under foot as well.
At 5:30pm the road was closed to traffic enabling the 35,000 strong crowd travelling from all over the UK to descend on and fill the area.
There was a good atmosphere with all being well behaved. Even for New Year celebrations, alcohol didn’t form an integral part of the evening so for a crowd of such a size, there was a certain lack of Police walking around. The most boisterous group of people were those dancing and chanting Hare Krishna songs – attracting plenty of random passers-by to join in. Only 2 Policemen were watching this group.
Entertainment on the stage started at 6:00pm, with the illuminations being turned on at 7:30pm. A large portion of the crowd squashed into the relatively small nearby Cossington Street recreational ground to see a gigantic fireworks display at 8:00pm. The display was still visible to those on Belgrave Road, as it was for many residents all over the city of Leicester. By 9:30pm the crowd had dispersed and Belgrave Road was reopened to traffic.
Leicester is a diverse city with many different groups harmoniously living alongside each other. Unlike the smaller, recent Dashera celebrations – there were people of many nationalities in attendance for the switching on of the Diwali lights.
Have a look to see what festivals are going on in your own town or city. Even if you have no idea what the festival celebrates, take a walk to see what happens. You could learn something new every day!