A mountain of food called the Annakut, a devotional offering of a thousand vegan and vegetarian foods, is organized on an altar at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Beltsville, Maryland, in honor of Diwali. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Back before Twitter and Facebook and the era of cellphone ubiquity, Mayur Thaker got word of the attack in a call to the family landline.

Two gunmen had killed dozens of people at a temple in India’s Gujarat state, the home his parents left for America years before. Now fellow worshipers were planning an emergency prayer session at Thaker’s BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, a Hindu temple in Beltsville, Md.

It was 2002. Thaker was 17. And he couldn’t understand why so many people — even monks, the very definition of nonviolence — had been targeted. “That turned to anger soon thereafter,” he said.

On Saturday, standing again inside the temple, this time for a joyous celebration of Diwali and the Hindu new year, Thaker thought of that tragic past and the more recent attempted political bombings in the United States and deadly synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.

And he recalled what the leader of his order of Hinduism, His Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj, did in that terrible moment amid India’s religious strife.

He prayed for the victims. And he prayed for the attackers.


Hindus pray at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

“I was shocked and inspired at the same time,” said Thaker, who now works as a stock market analyst, “because such a response would only come from someone who has no ego and truly has humility inside of him.”

Thaker and thousands of others gathered at their Maryland temple Saturday for an alternately exuberant and pensive look at the year ahead.

Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights, signifies a celebration of good over evil and the victory of light over darkness. As Thaker sees it, it’s a “time to celebrate unity in diversity, and to look inward and be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Singing in unison, they joined before a staggering display of more than a thousand homemade dishes, from lentils and cupcakes to chapatis and orange-and-fuchsia-colored traditional sweets.

“We believe food to be the very essence of love,” said Bijal Thaker, a finance analyst who brought an Indochinese chili tofu dish as an offering. (Husband Mayur went with chocolate cake.)


Temple attendees take photos outside the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The towering spread, climbing up cloth-covered altar steps at the front of the room, is meant to signify a year’s worth of food, given first to God, then made available for all to share, she said, as monks and families lifted candles before them. “That’s what it looks like to me — offering a lot of love,” Bijal Thaker said.

Or, as Ekansh Dave, 10, of Germantown put it, speaking for many of his contemporaries amped up with pre-sugar highs: “I need to eat some of that! It’s beautiful!”

It was also the temple’s 20th birthday party. The former suburban office building, once home to radio ratings firm Arbitron, has been transformed over the years with intricate columns and decorative flourishes outside. In 2010, a ceiling and some offices were removed to create a grand hall with a height of 22 feet.

Bharat Patel, the temple coordinator who was part of the volunteer group that helped overhaul the building’s innards, is a structural engineer at Metro, where he has worked on the transit authority’s parking garages.

With the echoes of mass shootings not far away, “a message of love and peace and nonviolence, that’s what we need the most right now,” Patel said.

Diwali was actually Wednesday, but with kids at school and parents at work, a weekend event gave more people the chance to join, organizers said.

Shaili Shah, 21, first came to the temple when she was 4. The dental student at Rutgers University caught a bus home to Columbia to commemorate the sacred holiday with parents and friends.

“This is the day I wait for the entire year. And tonight I’m going to wait for next year’s Diwali,” Shah said. “I love coming home. I love offering food to God.”

It’s a reminder of her sense of duty as a daughter and a friend, she said, and as a person who does not cheat or eat meat and aspires to be “honest and respectful to everybody.”

It’s also fun dressing up in a traditional sari, she said, and crafting savory cheese pastries for the offering.

“It’s really reassuring to know this part of my culture isn’t going anywhere, because it hasn’t gone anywhere the last 15 years,” added Haley Patel, 21, a senior studying aerospace engineering at the University of Maryland. “It’s a good thing to be a part of, and be a part of for so long.”