CARY — Even among hundreds of Indian-Americans dressed in traditional garb, folks like Cherri and Neal Eller might represent the Cary Diwali Festival better than anyone else.
The annual festival celebrates Diwali a religious holiday for Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs and aims to educate the local community about Indian culture.
Maitri Sanskrit for celebrating friendships was this years theme.
On Saturday, the Ellers found a shady spot on the lawn at Koka Booth Amphitheatre to share samosas pastries and soak in the experience of their friend, Sandra Rodrigues of Mangola, India.
Were here to learn about her culture, Cherri Eller, 54, said with a Dixie twang. This is probably as close as well get to India, so were chatting (Rodrigues) up as much as possible.
Rodrigues, 27, came to Raleigh a few years ago to study microbiology at N.C. State University. She met the Ellers through a university program that introduces foreign students to American culture.
Theyre like parents to me, Rodrigues said. Theyve opened their home to me, so I wanted to introduce my home to them.
As performers passed the trio sitting in their fold-out chairs, Rodrigues explained which dancers were from North India, and which were dressed to represent southern India.
Girls from South India, for example, will sometimes wear flowers in their hair, Rodrigues said. People from North India tend to have lighter skin.
Theirs was the exact type of conversation organizers hoped to spark, said Lyman Collins, Carys cultural arts manager.
The Ellers and the more than 10,000 in attendance Saturday are proof that the Bollywood-style entertainment, Indian art, food booths and clothing market are effective draws, he said.
Theres been more cross-community attendance and involvement each year, Collins said. Just look at the number of non-Indian performers in the Indian dance groups.
Dancers Sonali Kathuria and Soloni Rampal, both 16, said theyve noticed more diversity as well.
But for Kathuria and Rampal and other Indian families, Diwali is a tradition more than a learning experience.
Weve been coming here and dancing since about 2005, Rampal said. For us, its exciting because we know well see our Indian friends that we dont see very often.
That doesnt mean theres nothing new to see.
Kathuria and Rampal, who wore chaniya choli dresses, said Diwali also provides them a glimpse at the latest Indian fashion.
One of the newest things is ready-made saris, Kathuria said.
Thats where the long scarf is sewn onto the dress so you dont have to wrap it yourself, Rampal said. Ive seen a few of those.
Anand Singh, of Palika Bazar on Chatham Street, confirmed Diwalis growing diversity and popularity.
This is one of the best days of the year, Singh said as he watched women peruse through Kurti shirts at his booth.
And Ive seen a lot of new faces ... which is good for me, he said, laughing.