As the cold midlands skies are lit up with a wondrous array of lights in attendance of 60,000 people…it is remarkable how this custom transcribed from far away has established itself so firmly in Leicester. These celebrations, which stretch along the so called Golden Mile, are the biggest outside India started modestly enough. Decorations were first erected along the Belgrave Road in 1983. These were simple illuminated rings attached to columns between Dorset Street and Loughborough Road with illuminated festoon between the lamps. By 1986 it had extended to Olphin Street and the Belgrave Neighbourhood centre façade was included. Melton Road by 1989 and then 1995 extended to join the Belgrave Flyover until its recent removal. Over 4800 lamps being used over the years
The demolishing of the Flyover in 1994 and subsequent redevelopment of Belgrave Road gave the organisers the chance to extend. A report in 2015 noting:
“The display will now extend along the full length of Belgrave Road to Belgrave Circle, with column-mounted decorations on the 18 lamp columns around Belgrave Circle itself. More lights, illuminated signs and energy efficient bulbs will feature heavily in this year’s display. Our senior lighting technician Joe Clay outlined the plans in more detail. He said: “In the centre of Belgrave Circle there will be a 10 metre wide ‘Happy Diwali’ LED illuminated crossing, installed on two 12 metre high support poles. “The expansion of the display this year will add a further 1,200 multi coloured lamps. The lamps we have used from 2014 are LED lamps, which offer a dramatic reduction in energy usage. “On Belgrave Road there have traditionally been three different types of decoration fixed to lamp columns. For 2015 there will be a fourth design incorporated for variety and these will also be included around Belgrave Circle.”
Out of darkness
The festival, principally a Hindu one, but also recognised by Sikhs, is a New Year celebration based on the lunar calendar and this falling between late October and early November. Significantly for this time of year, when clocks go back and the feeling of darkness is ever present, the festival celebrates good over evil – light over dark.
The true origins of Diwali are lost in the mists, but the commonest legend tells of when the demon King Ravan was slayed by Hindu Lord Ram, crowned King of Ayodhya, after 14 years of exile. People celebrated by lighting lamps along the street. To Sikhs it was the time when in 1620, 52 Hindu princes were released by the sixth Guru, Hargobind Singh. Lights being lit at the Golden temple to welcome their return.
There is without doubt a feeling of expectation a joyous holiday atmosphere amongst the crowds awaiting the switch on. Cheers and fireworks fill the skies and dancing and music fills the spaces between the lights. The crowd can be a bit intimidating but that in a way is part of the event. Around in small areas small street displays of candles can be made…and as the town’s mayor steps up to turn on the lights with a great count down..everyone is waiting with great anticipation. Then the moment and the sky is lit up with wonderful lights. Then there’s the great aromas of food beckoning and the sounds of dancing and music filling the eye.
In essence one couldn’t get a better foreign custom to establish itself in England than Diwali, despite its varied claimed origins (itself a trait shared with many British customs) its wanting to banish darkness from the skies in the cold autumn nights echoes native traditions of Bonfire night and Christmas…but its idea of sharing and celebration what many races and religions have in common is something quite central to the core of many British customs. A need for community to include everyone…indeed it is worth noting that:
“Once the Diwali celebrations are complete, parts of the display will be converted to display a festive message, as we take down the Diwali decorations to put up our Christmas lights.”
In a sense only really by changing the words only perhaps!