The Office of the Dean of the Chapel (ODC), a sacred space for spiritual and religious exploration, has supported the faith celebrations of the University’s Hindu students – many natives of Nepal – for nearly a decade, including Dashain, Holi, and the most recent celebration, Diwali.
The Nepalese student community has become one of the rapidly growing international student populations at the University. In 2022, Nepalese students formally organized as a University-recognized club under the ODC as the Howard University Nepalese Student Association (HUNSA).
Since then, the impact of the Nepalese community on the campus has blossomed, providing an inclusive environment for Hindu practices. HUNSA’s formation has only strengthened the practice of recognizing, honoring, and celebrating the diverse cultural, spiritual, and religious beliefs within the University community.
“Through shared meals, music, and stories, we effectively bridged the gap between our Nepalese traditions and the broader Howard community,” said HUNSA president Reeja Shrestha, a sophomore architecture and design student from Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital.
On November 10, Hindus, Sikhs and Jains around the world celebrated Diwali, formally known as Tihar in Nepal. Known as the Festival of Lights, Diwali is a shortened version of the Sanskrit word Deepavali, which roughly translates as “a necklace of lights.”
“Imagine a magical time in Nepal when the air is filled with excitement and the aroma of festivity. For me, Tihar is a symphony of lights, colors, and heartfelt traditions that dance through our homes,” Shrestha said. “It usually lasts five days and is similar to the festival of lights, Diwali, celebrated in India. Tihar honors different animals and birds, including crows, dogs, cows, oxen, and the Hindu goddess of wealth, Laxmi.”
In commemoration of the holiday, HUNSA hosted an on-campus Diwali Festival on the evening of November 9, the second annual in-person celebration planned for the University community.
Throughout the celebration, the Hindu community united with students of other faiths to honor and celebrate all in which to be grateful. This gratitude encompasses everything from their support of friends and family, to the Goddess Lakshmi, a figure of wealth and good fortune. The event included student speeches, performances, food, and a Diyo lighting ceremony. These cultural events occurring on Howard’s campus represent the importance of diversity and inclusion of interfaith practices.
HUNSA founder Garima Rokaya is a junior psychology major from Nepal. Rokaya was selected in high school by Education USA to join a program assisting students from developing countries with their applications to U.S. colleges. Howard University rose to the top of her list after hearing positive feedback from Howard’s Nepali alumni.
Though far from home, Rokaya has found a great sense of comfort in her spiritual experiences at Howard. Rokaya began attending Rankin Chapel during her first semester, and despite her previous unfamiliarity with Biblical teachings, she believes every time she attends Chapel services, she has learned something good to start the day.
“At the end of the day, both are looking for a similar purpose in life, the paths are just different,” Rokaya said. “Everything that we get to learn about religions shows us that we have common ground. Because of Chapel, I feel connected to all different religions despite being raised Hindu. It’s given me a good interfaith life at Howard, and I just know myself better as a person through the lens of spirituality.”
HUNSA has organized many religious, spiritual, and cultural celebrations to include Dashain – one of the longest and most celebrated festivals in Nepal, which recognizes the victory of good over evil – and will continue to share cultural traditions with the Howard community throughout the school year. In the spring semester, HUNSA’s students will recognize the annual Holi celebration. This festival, a Hindu tradition known as the “Festival of Colors,” is another event that HUNSA hopes can be inclusive for students and faculty.
“This marked my second Tihar celebration at Howard, and just like the previous year, we all joined in with enthusiasm, seamlessly blending spirituality and camaraderie,” Shrestha said. “From organizing prayer sessions to lively festive gatherings, we created a vibrant slice of Nepal within the Howard community.”
Learn more about interfaith programming by contacting the Office of the Dean of the Chapel at firstname.lastname@example.org.