Ashby Fox and Devika Rao celebrate Diwali in 2014.
Ashby Fox and Devika Rao celebrate Diwali in 2014.

Nearly every fall, Viju Rao and his family throw a huge party.

They invite crowds of guests to their home — “everybody that we meet on the street in Dunwoody, plus all of [daughter] Devika’s friends,” Rao said. “Most of them have started asking, ‘When’s Diwali this year?’”

This year, Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, will be celebrated Nov. 11. Piyush Behre, a volunteer with the Hindu Temple of Dunwoody, said the holiday is mostly celebrated in homes.

Diwali commemorates “the day Rama comes back to his kingdom after 14 years—that’s why all the lights,” Viju Rao said. “The kingdom lights up and everybody celebrates the return of the king.”

In Dunwoody, Hindu families hang on to their cultural heritage by celebrating the stories and the traditions. Devika Rao described the celebration as “fire sparklers, food, friends, family and lots of color.”

Although the Raos don’t attend the local temple or consider themselves religious Hindus, “we are cultural Hindus,” Viju Rao said, and happy to celebrate the holiday.

“The cultural part is very peaceful, very secular,” Devika Rao added.

Viju Rao said a Hindu guides himself with two books, one of which is the “Ramayana,” an 8,000-word epic poem written in Sanskrit about the story of Lord Rama. “These stories are not religious,” Rao said. “They’re just mythology.”

Sunitha Gandavadi teaches Sanskrit at the Hindu Temple of Dunwoody.

Sunitha Gandavadi teaches Sanskrit to children at the Hindu Temple of Dunwoody. She, too, says culture and spirituality outweigh religious dogma. “We just say we are Hindus because of the festivals we celebrate,” Gandavadi said.

She added she and her friends “are not religious in a way that would look down on another religion.” “We don’t,” Gandavadi said. “Even back in India, we went to Catholic schools.”

When people understand the messages in myths, such as tales about Lord Rama, Rao said, the stories teach about morality. “The fact is it’s a very intelligent, smart way to teach a commoner,” Rao said. “If you spend a little time thinking about it, and reading about Indian spirituality, you start to understand why they told these stories.”

He says his family is celebrating the new year when he invites people for Diwali, which mirrors Christmas because people exchange gifts and sweets. Accountants get their books blessed “so they can cheat for the rest of the year,” Rao joked.

Last year, the Hindu Temple of Dunwoody opened at 2029 Pernoshal Court. The owners of Indian Bazaar grocery store converted a warehouse they own into the temple space, Gandavadi said.

Gandavadi said the local temple brings families together, with dancing and celebrating festivals. “We do pot luck festivals,” she said.
Gandavadi and Sunitha Umashankar moved to Dunwoody in the late 1990s. They said they are thankful for the temple, which introduces children to their Indian culture and their community. “Everybody who comes here is part of Dunwoody,” Umashankar said.

The temple offers yoga, Hindi language and religious classes, she said.

The women of the temple teach children how to pray and about moral values, Gandavadi said. “It’s not really about religion,” she said. “We teach them the good stuff.”

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