When Diwali became Fiji’s festival: A tale of lights, unity, and cultural fusion

By Maria Irene
Representational Photo by Getty Images. Licensed under the Unsplash+ License

The annual Diwali celebration in Fiji is more than just a festival; it’s a vibrant showcase of multiculturalism, community, and the rich layers of the nation’s history. The story of Diwali in Fiji dates back to the late 19th century when the first Indian indentured labourers were brought over by the British colonial government to work on sugarcane plantations. Initially, Holi was the dominant Hindu festival in the island nation. However, over the years, the warm glow of Diwali’s oil lamps has eclipsed the vivid hues of Holi, establishing it as the principal Hindu festival in Fiji.

A significant shift in ritual practices among Fiji’s Indian community happened over the decades, moving from Holi to Diwali as the festival of choice. This change wasn’t merely a swap of dates on the calendar but an evolution in cultural expression and communal gathering. While Holi was the primary festival for Hindus in Fiji during the first half of the 20th century, Diwali began gaining prominence, particularly after Fiji gained independence from British rule.

Today, Indians make up around 38% of Fiji’s population, a demographic reality reflected in the widespread and vibrant celebration of Diwali. The festival has outgrown its origins within the Indo-Fijian community to become a true national event. It’s a public holiday observed not just by Hindus, but by Fijians of various ethnicities and religious backgrounds. The Indian community in Fiji, often referred to as “Indo-Fijians,” has been instrumental in this transformation.

Fijians celebrate Diwali in much the same way it is observed in India. The Festival of Lights comes alive with the lighting of candles and oil lamps inside and outside homes, accompanied by the rambunctious setting off of fireworks. Spread over five days, the festival culminates in a grand feast, bringing families and communities together in a celebration of life, prosperity, and togetherness.

But Diwali in Fiji is not a carbon copy of the Indian version. It includes traditional elements such as Choti Diwali, Roop Chaturdashi, Laxmi Pujan, Bandi Chhor Diwas, Goverdhan puja, Annakoot, and Bhai Dooj, but has also incorporated aspects of local Fijian culture, creating a unique blend that could only be termed Indo-Fijian Diwali. Over the years, the festival has become a platform for Indo-Fijians to showcase their cultural heritage, contributing to the rich cultural diversity that defines Fiji.

Special meals and sweets are prepared, a tradition brought over from Indian customs. But more than the feasting and the fireworks, Diwali serves as a cultural bridge. The festival fosters communal harmony and understanding among Fiji’s diverse population, reflecting the universal message of hope, peace, and community that Diwali embodies.

Moreover, the celebration of Diwali in Fiji is a living testament to the lasting impact of the historical indenture system on the country’s social and cultural landscape. It stands as a monument to resilience, adaptation, and the beauty of cultural fusion.

The national recognition of Diwali not only underscores Fiji’s acknowledgment and appreciation of its Indian heritage but also highlights the nation’s multicultural identity. The festival has moved from being a community-specific celebration to one that embraces Fiji’s diverse cultural makeup, making it a crucial part of the national identity.

So when the oil lamps are lit and the fireworks light up the Fijian sky this Diwali, they will be telling a story. A story of history, culture, and a community that found its place under the Fijian sun, contributing to the nation’s ever-evolving cultural mosaic.

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