A bushel of diyas (beacons) illumined the Great Hall, and vibrant floral decorations adorned the hallways of the Federal Parliament House in Canberra.
It was a fitting venue for the milestone 10th anniversary of Deepavali festivities celebrated with grandeur and gusto in the nation’s capital.
The event was jointly hosted by the Federal Parliament and the Hindu Council of Australia (HCA), a national body representing Australian Hindus (approximately 300,000 in number), and was supported by other organisations.
Around 500 guests partook in the event that amplified the sentiment of multiculturalism as the desired chord that keeps a progressive nation bound together.
Participants included over 40 members of parliament and senators, high commissioners and ambassadors from five countries, community leaders, members and attendees from Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne.
The festivities commenced with the ‘Deep Pragatya’ (lighting the ceremonial lamp), a symbolic gesture to ward off darkness. Devotional songs were sung and prayers recited.
Chairman of the Hindu Council of Australia (HCA), Prof. Nihal Agar delivered the welcome note. “Indeed this is a classic example of multiculturalism, celebrating Deepavali in the nation’s Parliament House,” he said.
Senator Zed Sesalja, co-hosting the event with Kanti Jinna, vice chairman of the HCA, agreed.
“Holding this event in the Parliament is a testament to our freedom of religion,” he observed.
“This Hindu festival which we celebrate with people of other faith groups under the roof of this Parliament House is a testimony that you have flourished in our nation and I really appreciate for sharing your heritage with us. Tonight through the very act of coming together, we are helping to sustain the light of hope and goodness.”
Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs and representing the Prime Minister of Australia on the occasion, added her bit.
“The Australian Government supports a productive, harmonious and diverse society for all Australians,” she said.
“We respect the rights of all Australians to celebrate, practice and maintain their cultural traditions within the law and free from discrimination.”
Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten, hailed Diwali as a celebration meaning a lot to the half million plus first and second generation Indian-Australians residing in Australia.
“In Australia, we do not just tolerate diversity, we celebrate it. Diwali is to me a part of a greater story even of the triumph of Australia and its marvellous diversity over those who would say that multiculturalism doesn’t work,” he said.
Deepak Raj Gupta, Bill Shorten, Nihal Agar
Acknowledging the contribution made by Indians, he added, “I would like to acknowledge at Diwali the growing contribution of Indian-Australians to Australia itself.”
Navdeep Suri, High Commissioner of India to Australia, chose to highlight that relations between the two nations have grown.
“This year alone, we have seen 11 visits of Australian Cabinet ministers to India and that indicates the importance that Australia today attaches to India and vice-versa. Ensuing visits by India’s leading Cabinet Ministers to Australia will ensure that the momentum is continued. This year, we have also had our first ever naval exercises between our countries.”
To those gathered for the occasion, he had a particular note of acknowledgement.
“Each one of you represents a kind of excellence, a kind of commitment, to promoting relations between India and this nation,” he said.
Philip Ruddock, Father of the Parliament and a personality well-loved within the Indian community, said, “For me what is particularly important about Australia is the way we view our diversity. We are able to commemorate and celebrate Diwali in the way which we do here and that itself is a reflection of all of us. Tolerance and harmony are only realised if those values are understood. I pay tribute to you and I thank you all for allowing me to share such a magnificent occasion. You bring credit to us all.”
The personal note in Michelle Rowland’s speech struck a chord.
The Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multiculturalism and Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications, a popular figure at Indian community events, said, “During Diwali, when you go around the suburb such as the one I live in, I see all colourful lights and my three-year-old says ‘I like how there are two Christmases’, and I think that speaks a lot about how special Australia is.”
The highlight of the festivities was the Annakut (‘mountain of food’) display put up for the first time at the Federal Parliament by volunteers from Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney. Traditional Deepavali sweets and refreshments were served to attendees.
The entertainment was befittingly traditional and classical, with bharatanatyam, kathak, garba and folk styles dominating.
Indeed, to light the Diwali diyas this way, alongside some of the nation’s leading figures – and with the magnificent tapestry Shoalhaven Landscape in the background – was a special privilege that will stay on in memory.