Columbia Hindus celebrate Lakshmi Puja at the Shanthi Mandir

Sunday, November 11, 2007 | 6:38 p.m. CST; updated 5:00 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

COLUMBIA — A woman in a bright blue Indian dress places an offering of food in front of the elaborate shrine after putting the finishing touches on decorations.

At the center is a framed portrait of the Goddess Lakshmi, adorned with flowers. In front of the wooden platform holding the shrine, a group of decorated worshippers is gathering, exchanging greetings and holiday wishes.

The Lakshmi Puja is about to begin.

On Diwali, the most important Hindu festival of the year, celebrated Friday, most participants have a puja, or worship, for the Goddess of wealth.

The Shanthi Mandir, a 2-year-old Hindu temple in Columbia, gives local Hindus a way to celebrate the traditions of their ancestors, said Ashish Upadhyay, a worshipper at the temple.

“For me, Diwali is something you celebrate together, as a community,” said Upadhyay, who brought his wife and two children to the worship. “But we did light up the house and said prayers there as well.”

During the ceremony, the crowd of about 75 Hindu worshippers chanted or sang along to several prayers, praising Lakshmi.

“The chants are supposed to be very powerful,” said Megha Rao, a master’s student in chemical engineering who came to the celebration with her grandparents. “We believe you can’t utter anything wrong, or it will change the meaning of the prayers.”

At this particular ceremony, the children were the stars.

According to Hema Srinivasan, the event coordinator at the temple, the ceremony started so that the children could get involved and learn the traditions of their parents.

The children took flowers and, one by one, offered them to the Goddess by placing them on the shrine. At the end of the ceremony, each child walked to the shrine with his or her parents to give a final prayer to Lakshmi by waving a tray containing a diya, a burning wick in a pool of oil, in a circular motion in front of the shrine.

“It’s important that they know what I’ve known, what my ancestors knew,” said Upadhyay, stressing the importance of passing Hindu traditions to his children.

After the ceremony, the food offered to the Goddess was gathered up and distributed to the worshipers. Hindu’s call the blessed food prasad.

“The food is like the Holy Communion, to compare it to something from Christianity,” said Upadhyay. “It’s a sacred part of the offering. You get to eat something that’s been blessed.”

The second Diwali celebration took place Saturday evening in Brady Commons at MU. The Cultural Association of India, the International Student’s Association and Mizzou After Dark co-sponsored a dinner and dance open to the community.

The party gave community members an opportunity to eat and celebrate Diwali together, said Bandhana Katoch, president of the association of India.

“Food is an important part of any celebration,” she said.

The hosts supplied authentic Indian food and had craft booths set up near the dining area. Children and guests could decorate lanterns or decorate themselves with henna, a reddish-brown dye.

After eating, guests started the dance party. Children and adults alike came to the dance floor to move to the rhythmic beat of the Indian music until the music ended at 10 p.m. and the exuberant dancers wiped the sweat off their brows, straightened their saris, thanked the organizers and wandered home.

“I was brought up celebrating (Diwali),” said Rajiv Hachanandanani. “Whichever country I’m in, I will celebrate it.”

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