WASHINGTON - Barack Obama lit a ceremonial Diwali lamp at the White House and wished everyone a “Happy Diwali and Saal Mubarak” to become the first US president to personally join an event celebrating the Indian festival of lights.

“This coming Saturday, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists, here in America and around the world, will celebrate this holiday by lighting diyas, or lamps, which symbolise the victory of light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance,” said Obama at a ceremony in the East Room.

“And while this is a time of rejoicing, it’s also a time for reflection, when we remember those who are less fortunate and renew our commitment to reach out to those in need,” he added at the ceremony held for the first time in the main White House.

Although it was President George Bush who started the tradition of celebrating Diwali , he never personally joined the festivities in the Indian Treaty Room in the Old Executive Office Building, next to the main White House.President-Obamas-Diwali-Message

Obama then lit the traditional lamp with a candle as a Hindu priest with a three-forked tilak on his forehead chanted “Asatoma Sadgamaya” (Lead us from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to liberation) from the Upanishads.

Obama listened intently as the priest ended his invocation with “Om Shanti Shanti”, returned the priest’s namaste with folded hands and then shook his hands before leaving with greetings of “Happy Diwali  and Saal Mubarak” to everyone.

“Thank you Mr President for being the first president to come to the Diwali ceremony,” a journalist called out to Obama. “Yeah, isn’t that something?” the president shot back.

Obama’s White House also did not forget to leave the traditional box of Indian sweets on some 150 chairs for the guests.

The half-hour East Room celebration was attended by a crowd of Indians and other Asians. India’s Commerce Minister Anand Sharma and Ambassador Meera Shankar dropped by, and several Indian-Americans in administrative positions in Washington attended.

The brief ceremony began with a performance by the well-regarded Hindi a-capella group Penn Masala.

Before the Diwali  ceremony, Obama signed an executive order re-establishing the president’s advisory committee and White House initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, first established by President Bill Clinton and extended by President Bush until 2007.