The Diwali festival heralds a new year for Indian families. In Wairarapa, this triumph of light over darkness is celebrated each spring, with five days of feasting, music and a radiance of spirit.

Dozens of tiny flames in miniature clay pots sparkle around the home of Hetal Parbhu during Diwali. The lights – called Diya – have hand-made cotton wicks dipped in oil and are placed among Rangoli patterns made from rice and flower petals, to signify a fresh start and good luck.

The home is spring cleaned, clutter thinned, and the new beginning marked with luminous celebration and visits by friends and family. Hetal chooses favourites from her collection of 30-odd colour-drenched saris. She and her mother Priya spend days making special sweets and savoury Indian dishes to share. On the fifth day of Diwali, about 25 Indian families from Masterton to Martinborough gather at Solway School Hall for the main party.

Hetal was born in Zambia, Africa, and moved with her parents to Auckland as a girl. The family relocated to Wairarapa in 2002, after Priya visited a friend here and liked it.

“Back then, we knew only a couple of Indian families in Wairarapa but more arrived as dairies came up for sale,” Hetal says. “Dairies are good businesses for Indian families to earn money, with little

English and basic skills. Parents can work to allow their children to study for higher education here.”

After her own study in Dunedin, Hetal worked as an accountant in Masterton, then opened a retail shop in Carterton to run while raising her two children. Hers is a well-known face behind the counter, where she meets people from all walks of life.

“Indians are communal people,” Hetal says. “We come from living in large families – in cities, we don’t get together as often. In Wairarapa however, everyone has become our family and we know we can call on many to help us.”

Diwali, the Festival of Lights, is a highlight of the Indian social calendar each October. In the southern hemisphere, the festival falls in spring, when winter is pushed aside by longer days and new growth. It is the victory of good over evil, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair.

“We let go of our sorrows and start a fresh,” Hetal says.

At the Hare Krishna Centre each Sunday afternoon, the brilliant colours of a dozen saris crack across the room, as women and children dance to the live beats of a drum and golden cymbals. Bangles tinkle on wrists, as arms rise above turning bodies.

Later, the families recite rhythmic Krishna mantra to calm the mind and body, before sharing vegetarian food.

The centre, in Masterton’s Chapel Street, was opened in 2016 by local Hare Krishna devotee, Nrtya Gopal Das. He leads the mantra and plays the traditional drum, the Mrdanga, at Sunday sessions from 4pm-6pm.

“It’s about people gathering to find spiritual fulfilment not achieved by earthly, material gains,” he says.

Nrtya and Hetal’s families welcome anyone curious about Hare Krishna beliefs, or Indian culture, who wish to experience the colour and light of the community.

Story by Julia Mahony
Photography by Jannelle Preston-Searle