The altar of the mandir in Beltsville was brightly lighted Sunday and adorned with fruits and baked pastries as more than 2,000 people celebrated Diwali and the beginning of the Hindu New Year.

Diwali, which means "festival of lights," is considered the most important festival on the Indian calendar. Originally a Hindu festival, Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Rama, an ancient ruler, who came back to his kingdom Ayodhya after he triumphed over the evil Ravan, who some say is similar to the devil in Christianity.

When Lord Rama killed Ravan, the people of the northern India city of Ayodhya celebrated by lighting their homes with oil lamps. The illumination symbolized the removal of spiritual darkness and the onset of happiness and prosperity.

On Sunday night at the Beltsville mandir--a mandir is a place of worship--women and children placed fruits and sweets under the picture of His Divine Holiness Param Puja Pramukth Swami Maharaj, the spiritual leader.

During the celebration, men lined up to touch the feet of Yagnavallabh Das, a Hindu saint who attended the celebration. Das said the lesson of Diwali is that "we have to remove the darkness from hearts . . . prejudices, jealously, anger, all of these vices--that is the message."

Hitesh Patel, of Camp Springs, a volunteer at the celebration, said that at the new year, "We observe what we have done of the year and analyze ourselves, get differences of opinion and sketch the new year."

For Mukesh Swaroop, 27, of Ellicott City, the time is one of reflection. Talun Patel, 18, of Silver Spring, said, "It is getting freedom for my soul."

But Diwali is not all work. "It's a big festival," said Reshma Dave, 18, of Reisterstown. "If we were back in our country, we would have fireworks and everything, you would think it was the Fourth of July."

Diwali is actually a five-day celebration that began Nov. 5.

The celebration was moved back several days and concluded Sunday so that Das could visit.

Hetal Patel, 17, said there are 495 mandirs across the world. Dave said that at the various mandirs, more than 1 million followers are involved in a variety of activities from caring for the sick to helping the needy.

Priya Patel, 8, of Germantown, baked muffins for the occasion. "I like to do it; I wanted to please my guru. Without going to India, I learned Indian dances and about my Indian culture."

Mukesh Swaroop, 27, youth coordinator for Shree Swaminarayan Mandir, said his goal is to not only help young people observe occasions like Diwali but to help them understand their spiritual roots.

"I try to be a big brother," Hitesh Patel said. "If they need someone to talk to, I make sure they are growing spirituality. We have weekly programs where we teach them about religion, we teach them about morals and about values."

CAPTION: Yagnavallabh Swami speaks to the crowd celebrating Diwali and the beginning of the Hindu New Year in Beltsville.