Just as the hot, lazy-hazy days of lounging on the beach and barbecuing came to an end last year, I found myself not having to go much further than my backyard for a total and festive immersion into the world of Indian culture, at the 2004 Indo-American Fair. This year’s fair, otherwise known as the Indian Mela, comes to Mercer County Park, on Old Trenton Road in West Windsor, on Saturday and Sunday, September 3 and 4.

It was out of sheer curiosity that my husband and I ended up at Mercer County Park last September. If nothing else, we thought we would get a spicy Indian fast-food meal and some much-needed exercise in the sun. We were in for a pleasant surprise. The crowd of attendees was huge. We found out later approximately 12,000 people attended the 2004 fair, including not just Southeast Asians but people of other ethnicities.

After eating a finger-licking-good lunch of Pav Bhaaji, spicy mixed vegetable curry served with crisp toasted bread rolls dripping with butter, served by Masti restaurant of East Windsor, followed by ice-cream, we ambled towards the artists’ booths to explore the arts and crafts on display. Some of the paintings, wall-hangings, embroideries and hand-crafted objects were stunning, and the prices reasonable.

With vendors from all over the United States and Canada hawking their wares, there were so many interesting items at bargain prices that we were soon caught up in an unexpected window-shopping and buying spree. I bought myself a lovely silver necklace at a fantastic price and we placed an order for an ornate, hand-carved hardwood sideboard from Saktan Handicrafts of Hoboken, which was delivered to us later. It is a unique and elegant piece of Indian furniture that is both utilitarian and a delight to behold. And the price tag? Incredibly affordable, thanks to the owner, Ramesh Khanna.

The main objective of the festive Mela, organized by Shirdi Sai Dham, a non-profit cultural organization, is to propagate Indian culture amongst the young Indian-Americans who are born and raised in the United States. The other aim is to introduce the mainstream American public to the rich and diverse culture of India. The fair offers a unique opportunity for armchair travelers who have never been exposed to anything Indian to experience first-hand what Indian culture is all about.

In addition to the chance to win a brand new 2005 Toyota Camry, a camcorder with LCD, or an Apple iPod, the fair presents an impressive line-up of amusements to make it a weekend to remember. Well-known palmist, astrologer, and Hindu scriptures scholar, Kunj Vihari Pathak, of Edison, will provide brief readings and forecasts. "I want to help as well as entertain people by telling them what to expect in their future. I do this as a free service at the Indo-American Fair to help the cause of promoting our great philosophy and culture."

This year’s Mela is expected to be bigger and better than in previous years, offering up a kaleidoscope of dance, music, ethnic shopping, and the delicious aromas of authentic Indian food. Srilatha Chandupatla, master chef and owner of Ganges, in Princeton Junction, which specializes in the distinctive cuisine of the city of Hyderabad in Southern India, is planning this menu: Chhole Batura (spicy chick pea curry with puffed bread); Mirchi Pakoda (batter-fried hot peppers); Masala Vada (crisp split-pea patties with herbs and spices served with chutney or tangy sauce); and three types of rice Biryani, including a vegetarian variety. "We plan to make it an outdoor picnic-type meal, where people can meet, greet, and eat together while enjoying the shopping, shows, and festivities," she says.

A large number of vendors will showcase their merchandise throughout the park, and bargains are expected to be aplenty. One can find most anything that relates to Indian art and culture, from saris to silverware, curry to nuts, jewelry to ethnic Indian fashions, original paintings and rugs to handicrafts, furniture to accessories, herbal products to cosmetics, mortgages to mehendi (henna tattoos), and palm-readings to giftware.

The main attraction, however, is the live stage entertainment, with multiple deejays from the tri-state area and the popular EBC Radio 1680 AM adding their own brand of spice to the performers’ talents. Kulraj Anand, EBC’s dynamic and multi-talented program director says: "The Mela is a means of spreading love, peace, and kindness, an ideal way to promote our culture, and a great mode of expressing ourselves." A passionate proponent of introducing the beauty and diversity of Indian culture to the rest of the world, Anand also hosted the recent India Day Parade in Edison, a grand celebration of India’s Independence Day.

The fashion show is a must-see if one wants to know how delectable modern Indian fashions can be. There will be a parade of dances, music, and other live performances. Vibrant, colorful, and energetic, folksy dance numbers like the Bhangra and Ras Garba will be a rare treat for the audience.

The Indo-American Fair is an event meant for everyone including children and seniors, and a must for those who would like to experience and enjoy a warm, delightful slice of India right here in the Garden State.

Indo-American Fair 2005, Shirdi Sai Dham, Saturday and Sunday, September 3 and 4, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Mercer County Park, West Windsor. Third annual entertainment and cultural festival features handicrafts, ethnic dresses, fashion wear, henna, costume jewelry, and Indian foods. Free admission and parking. 609-275-1334.

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