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Thousands gather in Bay Area to celebrate Diwali -- The Festival of Lights

Diwali celebration at the Alameda County Fairgrounds draws thousands of celebrants
Diwali celebration at the Alameda County Fairgrounds draws thousands of celebrants 02:37

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- People around the world celebrated Diwali on Monday, the Festival of Lights, which originates from South Asia but is estimated to be celebrated by more than a billion people around the world, including by thousands of families around the Bay Area. 

"The brightness of the orange flower, when you walk in, it just brings your spirits up," said Chef Heena Patel, the owner of Besharam in San Francisco. "Having this moment to come together through food and sharing the food." 

Diwali celebrations include lighting a lamp or "diya" and performing religious ceremonies at home or at the temple.

Gathered together with decorations and plenty of food, many families enjoy the holiday at home. The festival represents light prevailing over darkness and the victory of good over evil. It is also believed to bring wisdom over ignorance.  

"This is Khandvi, the most elegant dish of my cuisine, Gujarthi cuisine," Patel explained while showcasing her favorite dishes to KPIX 5 on Monday. 

Patel had a special Diwali dinner earlier in the month and decorations including flowers remain inside her restaurant in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood this week. 

She shared some savory and sweet items from her menu for Diwali, which is one of her favorite holidays. She says the event reminds her of some of her most cherished memories growing up in India. Her food celebrates women of the past and present who have influenced her life and the journey she took to arrive in the Bay Area. 

"We want to create that home for everybody who cannot reach home during those festivities," said Vijaya Aasuri of the Association of Indo Americans. 

AIA hosts one of the largest Diwali celebrations in Northern California with tens of thousands coming together at the Alameda County Fairgrounds. Their celebration earlier in the month included activities all day with vendors, live performances, and food. In the evening, they recreated one of the traditions from India, burning of a larger-than-life effigy, and set off fireworks. 

"We are only hoping to get bigger and better and bigger and better so for those of us who cannot go home in time during festivals, this will be a great opportunity for everyone to come together and celebrate," Aasuri told KPIX 5 last week. 

Another major event that draws thousands of people on one of the weekends leading up to Diwali is the festival that began in Cupertino. 

Next year, the now Bay Area Diwali Festival will celebrate 20 years. Organizers say the growth they've seen in recent years matches the embrace America has shown toward Diwali with a stamp for the holiday and the White House recognizing the day as well. 

"It's very important to spread the word to share culture, to see that we are diverse but at the same time we are all similar, we all live here together," said Anjali Kausar, the chair of the  Bay Area Diwali Festival. 

The event has humble beginnings like many Diwali celebrations in the early years of its inception around the U.S. Eventually, the event got enough people to attend that it could move from indoors to outdoors and saw much more involvement from local and state leaders, along with community businesses. 

"We grew up with Diwali, Diwali was one of our most looked after, looked out for festivals because it was so much fun," said Mahesh Nihalani, who helped to start the local festival in 2003. "Things like love and peace and togetherness and all that is very important so if we can share that through festivities, it's so much better."

But the massive crowds and dazzling displays cannot take way from the simple traditions that bring families together each year. Spending time with loved ones remains the most meaningful way to celebrate Diwali no matter how small in scale. 

"I'm looking forward to having dinner tonight with my children and husband," Patel told KPIX 5 on Monday. 

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