Community leaders organized the first annual COMO Diwali Mela at Beulah Ralph Elementary School in Columbia on Oct. 26.

Diwali is one of the most important Indian and Hindu holidays, and is known as the “Festival of Lights,” symbolizing the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. The Sanskrit word “mela” means an Indian festival or fair that showcases different cuisines, merchandise, cultural performances and other aspects of Indian culture.

The 2019 COMO Diwali Mela was envisioned, organized and led by Mrs. Nitu Patel. She is well-known in the community as the leader of her dance troupe called the “Garba Queens”, which performs an Indian folk dance called Garba in Indian and Hindu events. She and her troupe of volunteers created a fabulous festive mood that mirrored a mini-India.

It was a great festive occasion for all the people of Indian origin living in the Columbia community. People came dressed in their best traditional Indian outfits in the spirit of Diwali. The celebration featured several food stalls with delicious home-cooked Indian cuisine, along with Indian jewelry and Indian clothing stalls, face painting and games, balloon painting, magician tricks, henna designs, yoga and meditation, kids’ games, Bollywood music, raffle drawings and much more.

A health camp, which included a University of Missouri cardiologist and two ophthalmologists, provided free medical and eye checkups. There were multiple cultural performances on the stage, as well as a grand finale with people on the floor dancing to the tunes of Bollywood music and a professional DJ.

Diwali is not only a festival of lights, but also a festival of sweets. People made a tempting array of sweet and savory Indian snack items to share with friends and family. Many local Indian women used their brilliant culinary skills to create new delicacies. These ladies spent a significant amount of time learning new dishes and perfecting them to make the best version of each item. The foods from all over India and seasoned chais (flavored tea) filled the mela with sensational smells and an uplifting mood. Indeed, something new, innovative and delicious was coming out of everyone’s kitchen.

The crowded food stalls that lined the Beulah Ralph school cafeteria gave the Diwali Mela attendees a beautiful memory of a local food market back in India. A sense of joy, pride, and immense happiness in the yelling and selling from the vendors was a treat to watch. Thanks to the mela organizers and each and every volunteer for bringing out the hidden talents of the Indian community to serve the festive spirit.

The impact this year’s mela made in the community is huge and will hold a special significance in the hearts of many Indians living in mid-Missouri for years to come. During previous Diwalis, the local Indian population used to gather in small groups to wish each other and celebrate the festival together with food, music and some firecrackers at individual homes and neighborhood clubhouses. While these smaller gatherings also hold great significance in Indian and Hindu tradition, this year’s Diwali Mela brought all together under a common roof, thus unifying the local Indian community in a way that had not been done previously.

The mela also brought out the true multicultural spirit of India. A complete flavor of the ethnic diversity in art, music, dance, food and clothing were brought out in full flare, allowing one to crunch a sweet from east India while enjoying a live South Indian dance performance.

The event was very well attended not only by the local American and Indian community, but also by several visitors from Jefferson City, Boonville, and other surrounding communities. Those who came left with their heart filled with true Diwali spirit. In future years, we can only hope the COMO Diwali Mela becomes only bigger and better, energizing Columbia with the Diwali spirit and spreading more joy and happiness around. Great kudos and sincere appreciation goes to the wonderful 2019 COMO Diwali Mela organizers for putting together such a joyous event that enabled several of us to experience and enjoy the Diwali festival in its true spirit.

Nithya J. Shanmugam is a recent Mizzou MBA grad, a happy wife — who asks her ophthalmologist husband every day how many eyes he saved — a mom of three blessed kids and a proud Sunday school teacher at the Hindu temple in Columbia.