Often coinciding with the August bank holiday, the Belfast Mela festival is a week-long event held at Botanic Gardens that celebrates cultural diversity through music, art, food and dance. This blog post examines how the Indian Community aims to promote cultural diversity by establishing multicultural events such as the Belfast Mela Festival.
In Sanskrit, the word ‘mela’ means ‘to meet’ or ‘ to gather’ and can also refer to a ‘fair’. In the Indian subcontinent, a mela festival can refer to a celebration of any size and can be used to celebrate a range of events including religion, cultural or sports. Some important mela festivals in South Asia include the Kumbh Mela, the Pohela Boishakh Mela and the Perfect Health Mela. Throughout the rest of the world, mela festivals are used by southern Asian communities to share and promote their traditions in the new countries that they live in; often though music, dance and food. These festivals also create important opportunities to help build relationships between different communities through the understanding of different cultures.
The first Belfast Mela festival was held in Botanic Gardens in August 2004 and was organised by the Indian Community Centre. The event was a hit with the local community with its array of colours, dance, food and crafts. Nisha Tandon OBE, founder and executive director of ArtsEkta, played an important role in the creation and organisation of the Belfast Mela festival as well as the Indian Community Centre. She said that the idea for the Mela festival came about due to ‘…the increasing population of ethnic minorities in Belfast and other towns and [she felt that] it is important for schools and Early Years education to teach children about diversity. In addition, she felt that the Mela festival had an important part to play in Belfast’s ‘… continuing journey to become a truly shared and cosmopolitan society where communities come together harmoniously and with mutual respect’.[7
Since 2007, the Belfast Mela Festival has been organised by ArtsEkta, a cultural organisation which aims to develop multicultural relationships between different communities, and has been increasing in popularity ever since. There has been a surge in the number of people coming to the festival with 2,000 at their first event to over 25,000 people in 2018.
As well as growth in the number of visitors, the content of the Mela has grown. Some of these events include bespoke performances by minority ethnic artists who come from different traditions, including Polish, Brazilian, Latin America and Indians. The World of Words zone, which was introduced in 2019, is a celebration of voices, storytellers and creativity from around the world. The World of Wellbeing has a variety of different relaxation workshops including yoga, meditation and tai chi to promote calmness and comfort. There is also something for children too as the cultural land allows children to experience a variety of multicultural dances and stories.
Similar to the work of the Indian Community Centre, the Belfast Mela festival plays an important role in endorsing cultural diversity in the wider community through its outreach programme which aims to get people more involved with their local communities. They have a wide variety of programmes for communities throughout Belfast including getting the Roma community involved in a drumming event in Belvoir.
The Mela Festival has received lots of praise during the years for celebrating diversity. In 2019 the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor John Finucane, said that the event is a ‘…high-profile demonstration of the life-enhancing benefits of diversity… [and] is a real tribute to Belfast’s welcoming spirit and showcases our capital’s continuously evolving makeup’. The success of the Mela festival can be attributed to the desire amongst various communities to be a part of something that represents their own cultural identity. In doing so it helps them feel respected for their beliefs and creates a sense of belonging.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, this year’s Belfast Mela festival will be held online. Between 24th August – 30th August, Mela at Home will feature over 50 digital events in food, dance, music, wellbeing and art to celebrate and promote cultural diversity in Northern Ireland. It is hoped that the ‘…virtual festival [will bring] people some joy, positivity and hope in these very strange times’.
To find more information about Mela at Home, click here http://www.belfastmela.org.uk.
 Belfast Telegraph, 17 August 2019
https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/mela-festival/20000-reasons-why-mela-festival-is-the-real-face-of-belfast-30514506.html ; https://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/news/belfast-at-its-best-as-magical-mela-to-host-12th-
 Belfast News-Letter, 7 August 2020.