Diwali: A Festival and A Celebration Like None Other

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Love, light, hope, prosperity, feasts, and fireworks… The festival of lights, aka Diwali, is the celebration of good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and light over darkness. Arguably one of the most important and popular festivals of the Hindu calendar, Diwali, also called Deepawali, is celebrated not only in India but across the world. Steeped in rituals, it is an elaborate festival that lasts five days, and is intrinsically associated with the Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

Legends Aplenty

Celebrated each year on the new moon day (Amavasya) in the Karthik month of the Hindu lunar calendar, The word Deepawali comes from the Sanskrit word that means”‘row of lights.” The festival of lights normally falls in October or November. The celebrations start two days prior to Amavasya and continue two days after, making it a grand five-day affair.

There are several legends associated with the festival. While some states, especially in north India, observe it to commemorate the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya after spending 14 years in exile, many in the south believe this was the day that Lord Krishna defeated demon Narakasura. In the trading communities of western India, especially Gujarat and Rajasthan, it marks the beginning of the new “Samvat” year.

Rituals and Festivities

Prior to the festival, people typically busy themselves with cleaning their homes and offices. They also buy new clothes and gifts for themselves, as well as for family members and friends. The festivities start with Dhanteras, which falls two days prior to the new moon day. It heralds an auspicious beginning after an annual cleansing ritual. On this day, it is customary to buy gold and silver, or even new utensils. Some even take delivery of their new vehicles on this day. While Dhanteras was earlier celebrated in North India, today the festivities take place all over, including the south, with jewelers, retailers, and shop-owners working hard to lure customers. In South India, especially Karnataka, this day is celebrated as Neer Thumbasa Habba, which translates to “water-filling festival.” While in earlier days, traditional wells and boilers used to be cleaned and adorned with flowers, today that is more symbolic of discarding the old and welcoming the new. Oil lamps and candles are lit in homes, and special pujas performed. Dhanteras falls on Nov. 2 this year.

The next day is celebrated as Naraka Chaturdashi in the south, and Choti (small) Diwali in the north. An oil bath is mandatory and new clothes are worn. Firecrackers, sweets and prayers mark the day, a celebration of auspiciousness. The following day is Amavasya, the main day of Diwali. Goddess Lakshmi is worshiped in the evening and the entire house lit with candles and other lights to dispel darkness – both literal and figurative. The business community celebrate it as the new year, and a customary trading session, “Muhurat,” is held for about an hour in the evening in the stock markets. Naraka Chaturdashi and Amavasya fall on the November 3 and 4, respectively. The latter date also marks the beginning of Vikram Samvat 2078.

The fourth day of the festival is celebrated as Balipadyami and Goverdhan Puja. Houses are decorated with rangoli or kolam, and people enjoy an elaborate meal. Domesticated cows are worshiped as a symbol of holiness and prosperity. Legend has it that it was on this day that Lord Vishnu defeated Bali. The last day is observed as Bhai Dooj, which literally means ‘Brother’s Day’. Similar to Raksha Bandan, this day also celebrates the sibling bond between a brother and sister, during which sisters pray for the well-being of their brothers. Sweets and gifts are exchanged in this celebration of family love. Balipadyami and Bhai Dooj are celebrated on the November 5 and 6, respectively, this year.

Good Food and Great Vibes

Like all festivals, Deepawali is also a time for people to meet with friends and extended family, to bond amidst good food. Card parties are a key feature, as is the delectable festive food, including a host of sweets and savories. Traditional Indian sweets, such as laddoos, barfi, mohanthal, halwa, puran poli and kheer, are prepared, along with savories like chakli, murukku, mawa kachori, samosa and farsan (shankar para, karanji etc). People exchange gifts and sweets, apart from dry fruits. It is a festival of fun and frolic.

Celebrations Across the Globe

Today, the celebration of Deepawali transcends geographical borders. Whether in the U.S., U.K., Canada or Australia, the spirit of the festivities is evident in the elaborate display of fireworks, lighting of lamps, worship at temples and innumerable parties and get-togethers with friends and family.

The Indian diaspora in the U.S. makes Diwali a memorable occasion, with several states observing the rituals associated with the festival. Diwali at Times Square in the Big Apple is one of the largest celebrations of Diwali outside India, and is characterized by a grand carnival that includes song, music and dance, along with fireworks and traditional Indian food.

Interested in more Diwali? Check out the SEEMA Magazine Diwali Special Edition