Many in the Indian community in the Philadelphia area are celebrating Diwali, a Hindu religious festival that is also a secular holiday, a time to take pride in Indian culture and identity.

"Anyone can walk in and really get an immersion into Indian culture, and learn about Diwali and what it means," said Jennifer Au, director of grants and international programs for the YMCA of the Upper Main Line in Berwyn. "It's our way of promoting global awareness."

Diwali is the most widely observed holiday in India, Au said.

The Lionville Community YMCA, a branch of the Upper Main Line Y, hosted its Diwali celebration last night, featuring arts and crafts for children, fireworks, gift-giving, food, music and dancing.

"Although it's traditionally a religious celebration, the way we celebrate it is kind of secularized right now," Au said. "It's like Christmas and Santa Claus."

Unlike Christmas, which most observe on Dec. 25, Diwali is a celebration without time constraints.

"Diwali is celebrated almost monthlong," Au said. "Depending on where you are in India, it's celebrated in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it's a day, in some cases it's three days. Some it's four, some it's seven days."

This "festival of lights" celebrates the conquest of good over evil, and reaffirms friendship and good will while promoting cultural unity and togetherness. Those beliefs are illustrated through an exchange of gifts; music and dance performances; and feasting.

"I'm a Hindu," says Akanksha Kalra, spokeswoman for the Greater Philadelphia Council of Indian Organizations. "I was born and raised a Hindu, so of course Diwali has a religious significance for me. But more importantly, the secular part of Diwali also means to me . . . a time for everybody to come together as family. Lots of getting together with friends, that's the part I like. The religious part, of course, is something personal."

Pockets of Indian immigrants are scattered throughout the region, Kalra said, including Northeast Philadelphia, Bensalem, King of Prussia, Downingtown, Montgomeryville, and Blue Bell.

There were about 43,600 people of Asian-Indian heritage in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties in Pennsylvania, and Gloucester, Camden, and Burlington Counties in New Jersey, according to the 2000 census.

"This is our third year celebrating" Diwali at the Lionville Y, Au said. "The first year, we already got a good 400 people. Last year we had 600 people. We're expecting at least that many people Friday night."

Diwali recently received a little help in the government arena: Gov. Rendell signed a proclamation declaring Oct. 15 to Nov. 15 as "Diwali Month."

Besides the Lionville Y, local universities and groups have had Diwali celebrations during the last few weeks. Drexel University held its first on Oct. 28, while Villanova University will mark the holiday on Nov. 22. The Bharatiya Temple, an Indian cultural center in Montgomeryville, held its celebration from Oct. 26 to 28.As the traditional fireworks blossom, then fade in the sky, the festival will look to fulfill a Diwali blessing: "May the festival of lights be the harbinger of joy and prosperity."