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US Army celebrates a colourful Diwali amidst stately military flags

November 25, 2013 22:51 IST

My heart swells up with waves of emotions to see the support building up for South Asian culture and traditions in the US military, says Captain Pratima Dharm. Aziz Haniffa reports

For the second successive year, nearly 200 members -- United States Army personnel, medical professionals and other guests -- celebrated Diwali at the Walter Reed National Medical Centre’s Memorial Auditorium, November 15.

The centre, in Bethesda, Maryland, is the country’s premier medical facility providing support to wounded service members and their families.

Last year, the first Hindu chaplain in the US Army, Captain Pratima Dharm, had initiated the first Diwali celebration at the centre. She had told India Abroad that she hoped to make it an annual tradition.

This year, there clearly were more active duty service members, Department of Defense workers, contractors and other guests present at the celebration.

Led by Dharm, an enthusiastic group of volunteers recreated a typical Indian Diwali setting amidst stately military flags in the auditorium. The stage had a temple, colorful saris, images of Lord Vishnu, and a row of lamps.

Chaplain Robert Powers, head of the Chaplain Department at Walter Reed; Shiv Ratan, counselor at the Indian embassy; and Sushila Kaul lit the ceremonial inaugural lamp.

Dr Adarsh Ramkumar, a scientist at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, performed a Ganesh puja. Mandira Sarkar, Promilla Banik, Raj Mahajan and Shashi Arora sang bhajans. Lakshmi Swaminathan from the Natananjali school of Dance in Bethesda, Maryland, performed Bharata Natyam.

The event concluded with a meditation led by Najuk Mehta of the Art of Living Foundation.Subha Maruvada’s students performed a group Kuchipudi dance. Inderjeet Singh and Inderpal 

Singh sang Gurubani bhajans (Sikh hymns).

Dharm -- who also emceed the program -- reminded the military audience ‘especially of the spiritual significance of Diwali to reflect upon the inner light that exists within all of us and which continues to glow no matter what life brings our way.’

The celebration concluded with a vegetarian Indian lunch.

Key organisers of the event included Dharmendran Rajendran, president, South Asian Military Family Support Network; Nitin Shinde; Piragash Swargaloganathan, the Hindu lay leader at Walter Reed; Rashmi Suman, Tulsi Pandey, and Sunil Sudigulla.

“My heart swells up with waves of emotions to see the support building up for South Asian culture and traditions in the US military,” Dharm told India Abroad.

She said besides active duty service members and civilians, at the event there were also members of the Indian-American community from the DC metropolitan area “from the local Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Christian and Buddhist communities.”

She added, “When I started as a Hindu chaplain three years ago, this was exactly my intent to open up doors for a better understanding of South Asian culture, traditions and religions. The celebration of Diwali seems to do just this. It not only brings people of different faiths together but also allows a deeper understanding and dialogue.”    

Swaminathan said, “I loved performing at Walter Reed. My students have been performing here for several years. This year Chaplain Dharm asked me to perform and it was a wonderful opportunity for me to serve the US military through the medium of my Bharata Natyam dance… I also very much appreciated the meaningful and thoughtful address given by Chaplain Powers.”

Rajendran said, “The core team worked hard to make this happen. We stand behind to serve the South Asian service members and their families in the US military always. These events give us an avenue to do more for the soldiers for whom these events are reminders of home away from home.”

Maruvada said, “My students did well and came through with flying colors. I am very proud of them. We look forward to performing and serving the US military again. I have done my PhD under a DOD grant, and feel even more obliged to serve the DOD and the military. I feel I am giving back what I received from the DOD.”

Banik, who retired from Walter Reed recently but still remains a Red Cross volunteer at the centre, said, “It is a great feeling to serve others.”

Abhi Janamanchi, the local Christian Unitarian Church pastor who attended the event, said, “The event was very well organised and I am glad to be part of it. I am looking forward to attending other similar events in the future.”

Aziz Haniffa in Washington DC