Tens of thousands of people filled Belgrave Road in Leicester with festival spirit, to celebrate the first night of Diwali with prayers, dance, shopping and fireworks.
An estimated 35,000 revellers, from around the UK and further afield, gathered to make the city’s celebrations one of the biggest outside India.
Jivanbhai Patel, special guest and a “respected father figure” in Leicester’s Asian community, flicked the switch on 3,000 metres of lights at 7.30pm last night, illuminating the famous Golden Mile with multi-coloured bulbs and flickering diyas lamps.
The 77-year-old, who settled in Leicester with his wife and three children from Uganda in 1976, was honoured for his charity work in the city and joined on stage by Sir Peter Soulsby.
Soulsby, who marked his first Festival of Lights in the capacity of city mayor, was garlanded with flowers during the ceremony. He thanked Leicester city council highways and public lighting departments, the council’s festival unit, the Hindu Festival Council and the mobile phone network O2 for their generosity in sponsoring 2011’s event.
Soulsby said: “Diwali celebrates the triumph of light over the darkness. This is a message for all our communities in Leicester.
“It celebrates the triumph of hope over despair. Let us look in our city for hope and let us as individuals look for the triumph of hope over despair.”
Entertaining the crowds at the Switch On were young dancers and a high-octane Bhangra performance. A spectacular fifteen-minute firework and laser show, shot into the night sky from a packed Cossington Park, also ensured Dwali’s five days of celebration kicked off with a bang.
Three Leicester MPs – Keith Vaz, Liz Kendal and John Ashworth – had taken turns to address the festive crowd earlier during the evening.
Flower garlands festooned shop windows along Belgrave Road, which was closed to traffic for over three hours. Queues of people steadily grew outside fireworks shops and sweet marts including Ambica’s, while some restaurants manned temporary stalls to cope with the increased demand.
Shopkeepers on The Golden Mile no doubt offered up prayers to Lakshmi (goddess of wealth who is honoured during Dwali) for a successful new year of trading.
In the same spirit, a new one-day indoor shopping festival, showcasing jewellery, make up and clothing retailers, was launched at the Colosseum function venue, in Melton Road. Specialist products on offer included halal cosmetics, from city-based entrepreneur Nadia Gani.
After a fairly slow start earlier in the day, organisers were optimistic that the shopping festival could become an annual feature of Switch On day.
Hema Patel, 32-year-old co-organiser of the shopping festival from Only Red marketing, said: “Buying new gifts and jewellery is one meaning of Diwali.
“This is a fun event and we wanted to give it a place on this day, because Diwali is not just about the lights and we wanted to complement that event.”
Celebrations continue until Diwali Day on October 26, when Belgrave Road will be closed to traffic for entertainment and fireworks from 6pm.