The 11th Diwali Festival in Done, but Arun Verma’s Work is Not Done

By Jawahar Malhotra

SUGAR LAND, TX: Another successful Dusserah/Diwali Mela is now done, with over 10,000 people coming to watch and participate in it last Saturday, October 22 at the Constellation Field home of the Minor League Sugar Land Space Cowboys baseball team.

For many people who have come to the event over the past 12 years, the elements of the over 6-hour long event have become all too familiar. It is after all, a combination of the two biggest festivals in Hinduism celebrating the victory of Lord Ram over the forces of evil and destruction of the demon king in Sri Lanka and his return with his entourage to his ancestral home and the celebration of Diwali.

The stadium holds 7,500 but over 10,000 attended the event and rubbed shoulder-to-shoulder with others making their way through the concourse lined with booths from the over 75 vendors selling merchandise – clothing, jewelry and gadgets among others – services and the 5 food booths were doing roaring business.

The program was filled with performances showcasing Indian culture through songs and dances on the huge 60 ft by 40 ft stage built in the infield with massive pylons and beams holding up lights and the sound system, set beside the 24 ft tall figure of Lord Hanuman and 35 ft tall figure of Lord Ram. Local celebrities were honored, including politicians Congress Reps Al Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, Mayor Sylvester Turner who was the Grand Marshall of the parade, County Judges K.P. George and Lina Hidalgo, Gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke, 13 Consul Generals from the Consular corps in Houston, among others. Gov. Greg Abbott sent in a video message.

After a short Ram Leela performance and aarti, the parade by 38 floats made the round of the stadium, including a group carrying 75 Indian flags to commemorate India’s 75th Independence and another group hoisting the flags of the 100 countries which have consulates in Houston. The 25 ft tall effigies of Ravan, Kumbhakaran, and Meghnath were burned with crackling sounds and then the 30-minute fireworks display lit up the clear night skies.

This year’s festival has used the lessons learnt from previous years to reach more people further across the globe. During the COVID years, it went virtual in 2020 with a Zoom telecast reaching 650,000 people according to the festival originator and principal architect Dr Arun Verma. The next year the festival was held near the Katy Freeway with people sitting in their cars. Apart from these two, the festival has been held since 2012 at what used to be called the Skeeters Stadium.

But before he envisioned the festival, Verma, who is a staunch Ram Bhagat and believes in Lord Ram’s guidance, held the Ram Leela play from 2007 to 2015 at various locations.

“It takes me 3 months of full-time work to prepare this event”, recalled Verma of the coordination required to manage so many moving parts. With over 500 performers, 250 volunteers and team leaders, 1,000 people in the parade, dozens of people at the Stadium including security, ambulance, police, fire, parking lot attendants, the coordination is a massive effort.

“This year’s festival had limited virtual feed, but post-event coverage on social media has had a million hits’, said Verma. “We are putting the final touches on a 2-and-a-half-hour YouTube video which will go live very soon. I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t get another half million hits”!

Weary as he was a week later, Verma already was jotting down ideas for a grander event next year. He felt satisfied that his service to his guiding light, Lord Ram, was helping him to spread the message of conquering evil across the globe in a way he had never imagined.