Light fantastic on Leicester's golden mile

Fireworks, illuminations and rainbows of sticky sweets. Mike Gerrard sees the dawn of the Hindu New Year at the largest Diwali festival outside India
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
"Sweets are getting fancier these days," Kirit Bhavesh told me at the Ram Lakhan Sweet Centre. "For Diwali I make these, which look and taste like fruit: apples, pears, melons, strawberries. Then there are coconut barfis, which have a base of sugar and milk. Pendas are made from sugar and milk with saffron, cardamom, vanilla or other flavouring."

Diwali is not a time for dieting, obviously, but it is the time for celebrating the victory of good over evil. Diwali is the Hindu feast of the Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu and the goddess of light, beauty and wealth. It's the start of the Hindu New Year, and is a festival celebrated by Sikhs, too. Diwali means "garland of lamps", hence the transformation of the streets into golden displays and the lighting of lamps and candles in everyone's homes. Not just in the streets of Delhi or Calcutta, but in the streets of Leicester, which has the largest Diwali celebrations outside of India. It's comforting to know that it's not only the Christian religion which turns momentous events like the birth or death of Christ into an excuse for having a good time and buying sticky sweets.

In Leicester more than 20 per cent of the population is Hindu, Sikh or Jain. It has the only Sikh Museum in Britain and the only Jain Temple in Europe, both open to visitors. In fact, so multi-denominational is the city that it is the only place in the world, outside Bombay, where you can see a Hindu temple, a Muslim mosque and a Jewish synagogue, all standing side-by-side. A wander through the Belgrave Road area is like a visit to a little India, and reveals that Leicester is far more than just the home of Gary Lineker, Thomas Cook, Adrian Mole, King Lear and Engelbert Humperdinck.

It's also the home, for instance, of D Pradhanbhai Odhayji, Goldsmith and Jewellers (Established Nairobi, Kenya 1948, Leicester 1976) whose business card is as golden as the stock in the window. Belgrave Road is called the Golden Mile, with some 15-20 jewellers who are said to sell more gold across their counters than anywhere else in Europe. You can do some exotic shopping in and around Belgrave Road. Jalpur Millers on Harrison Road is a mix of supermarket, miller and wholesaler. They mix their own spices and mill their own flour. On the shelves I notice red lentils from Australia, green lentils from Turkey, popcorn from the USA and white beans from India. There are dried chillis, cinnamon sticks and sindhaloo salt.

Having worked up an appetite, I wandered down to the Sharmilee restaurant and sweet shop for lunch. I dragged myself past the rainbow of sweets on display downstairs, even passing the khaja rolls made from flour, honey and crushed pistachios, and went upstairs to its restaurant, which features in the Good Vegetarian Food Guide and specialises in South Indian dishes.

At Sharmilee, while two Indian girls chatted about boyfriends at the next table, how could I resist a dish called Cahanabateta comprising chick peas and potatoes in a tamarind sauce and topped off with onions? After that modest starter I polished off two curries, pilau rice, naan bread, fried salad, a lager and an ice-cream. As most of the eating places are vegetarian, they're also dangerously cheap. So are Leicester's Asian supermarkets, where I was able to buy aubergines the size of rugby balls, and some small enough to have been swallowed whole. As for other vegetables, I was staring uncertainly at a large one when a shopper in a sari enlightened me: "It's like a potato, must be cooked slowly. Very good. You should try."

In the afternoon I'd arranged to visit the Sikh Museum in the city centre. The museum is in a Sikh temple in a former hosiery factory, in a street with the wonderful name of Holy Bones. In deference to Sikh tradition I removed my shoes, donned a headscarf and was shown around by Mrs Virpal Singh. The Sikhs believe that all people are created equal. "Even if the Queen came to visit," Mrs Singh tells me, "she would have to sit on the floor with everyone else. We are all equal in the eyes of God." The Museum's walls are lined with paintings by a local Sikh artist, depicting the gurus and scenes from Sikh history, while there are also gleaming white models of Sikh shrines, such as the famous Golden Temple of Amritsar.

The tenets of the Sikh faith are explained to me, and the role which Sikhs have played in both British and Indian history. In the freedom fight against the British, Sikhs made up only one per cent of the Indian population but accounted for 80 per cent of the casualties. At the entrance to the museum walls are lined with photographs of the proud faces of some of those resistance fighters.

"Would you like some tea?" Mrs Singh asks. Thinking she means a cup, I agree, but as well as the tea, two plates piled high with peda and pakora also arrive. Peda are gorgeous sweets made of condensed milk, sugar and pistachio, while a pakora is a lip-tingling mix of potato and vegetables, a bit like a samosa, but deep fried in batter.

From fireworks on the plate to fireworks in the heavens, as Diwali lights up Leicester's night skies a few weeks before Bonfire Night. In Belgrave Road's supermarkets you can buy the kind of fireworks that sound like they ought to have been banned by the European Union, and probably have: "The aliens are confronted by a staggering 25-shot battalion of crashing comet-tail starbursts" promises the War of the Worlds. That's only pounds 4.99 so goodness knows what the pounds 19.99 Dragon Fury will unleash, or Wicked Demons or Lancelot's Revenge.

The bangers will be out on Sunday 19 October, as will the sound of bhangra, rhythmic Indian pop music, and it's hard to know which will be louder. There will be speeches and singing, traditional dancing, and at about 7.30pm the Diwali lights will be switched on. They might not rival the Blackpool Illuminations, but the Belgrave Road Illuminations are a cheerful mix of silver, red and gold. Beads of light are strung across the street, and shops improvise their own displays. The streets will be packed with about 30,000 Hindus, all having a good time, greeting old friends. When the fireworks display starts an hour or so later in Cossington Park, you'll see dainty ladies in bright saris holding tiny sparklers and giggling, and youngsters thrilled by the spectacular.

After last year's frolics I walked back to the Tiffin, near the train station, for another excellent Asian meal. At one table a party of Indians were camcording someone's birthday. A pair of medical students sat next to me. "That three months' rheumatology was a waste of time," she told him. "But he was injecting it," he told her later on. "Now paint stripper I can understand. Meths and turps I can understand. But Polyfilla?"

It was a line I think one of Leicester's other sons, Joe Orton, would have been proud to have invented, and pondering its implications I polished off my chappati, picked up my bag of aubergines, and headed for home. Diwali Fact file INFORMATION The Diwali lights will be switched on in Belgrave Road on Sunday 19 October, and stay on till Diwali Day, a slightly more subdued affair, on 30 October.

Leicester Promotions offers "Taste of Asia" weekend breaks from pounds 122.50. The package includes two nights B&B, two meals along Belgrave Road in the award-winning Sharmilee and Friends Tandoori restaurants, and a full day at the Southfields College A sian Cookery School. The next available dates are 1-2 and 21-23 November. Tel: 0116 285-6734.

Other information from the Tourist Information Centre, 7/9 Every Street, Town Hall Square, Leicester LE1 6AG, tel: 0116 265-0555.