Ananda Mela Joyful Festival lifts up spirits in Redmond | SLIDESHOW

Last weekend, the annual Ananda Mela Joyful Festival of India — a free, community-oriented celebration — inspired thousands of participants with its color, taste and music.

Chanchal Gandhi (left) speaks with Jillian Bakke at a vendor booth at the Ananda Mela festival last weekend.

Last weekend, the annual Ananda Mela Joyful Festival of India — a free, community-oriented celebration — inspired thousands of participants with its color, taste and music.

“Ananda means fun, and mela means festival,” explained volunteer, Gauranga Candra Das.

Every summer — when the sky is clearest and the sun is most generous — the Vedic Culture Center (VCC), a nonprofit organization in Sammamish striving to preserve Indian art and culture, teams up with hundreds of volunteers to showcase the best of India at Redmond City Hall.

“The original misunderstanding about India is that India is a place about elephant and snake charmer,” Das said. “It is time to change some perceptions here.”

Stemming from last year’s success, the volunteers preserved many appeals of the festival and found new ways to improve. Booths and activities conveyed a culture entrenched in history from garnets, traditional foods, to Bollywood dances.

“The biggest difference this time is a magnificent display on the River Ganga, India’s largest and most important river,” said artistic director Latha Sambamurti. “The display traces the river from its origin in the Himalayas, through the plains of northern India.”

The exhibition was a model around 20-foot-long that described how the Ganges River nourishes millions of inhabitants who revere their river as the goddess Ganga, a Hindu deity. One segment included nine islands of devotional service at Mayapur, which symbolized nine ways to maintain intimacy with god.

Around noontime, dozens of people lined up before the booths draped with white fabric. Volunteers served Indian cuisines such as Chole Bhature, a dish known for chickpeas and fried bread, and Pani Puri, another savory snack and crowd’s favorite.

Mango lassi — an ice-cold beverage mixed with yogurt, spices and fruit — was a popular thirst quencher after hours of fun.

Interactivity was also a big theme this year. Chess competitions provided intellectual challenges, while the outdoor inflatable bouncy house prompted children to exercise.

“When a participant is involved actively in the festival, (Ananda Mela) becomes ‘their’ festival,” said Sambamurti. “If I may borrow from President Lincoln, the festival becomes one ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.'”

Around 20 performances took place on the Ganga (main) stage and the Yamuna (secondary) stage lasting from noon until 9 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Visitors sat down to enjoy the performances as they took bites out of their delicacies.

A child cradling a dish of veggie Manchurian dish strode along with her parents, while on the stage, a group of women dressed in saris danced to the rhythmic beats.

One of the highlights was the Aloha Bhangra Dance Contest, in which Hien Ton, a Seattle University nursing student, won the top prize: a trip for two to Hawaii.

Ton said she learned many of her dance moves from YouTube ever since she fell in love with Bollywood and Bhangra music.

“I believe we all can become Bhangra dancers, as long as we let the high, energetic beats sweep us away. Balle Balle!” she chanted.

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