Glowing Lights of A Celebration

Nov/03/2021 / by Swarnendu Biswas
Diyas being lit as a symbol of light over darkness. Photo by Udayaditya Barua on Unsplash

Diwali is one of the most popular festivals from India, which is celebrated with reverence, fun and gaiety. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Diwali is being celebrated in many other countries besides India. It is always celebrated on a new moon night, and the day of main Diwali celebrations generally falls between mid October to mid November. 

Diwali is mostly celebrated among the Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Newar Buddhists and the festival represents the symbolic triumph of light over darkness and good over evil.

A Popular Myth

The historical origin of Diwali is nebulous but several myths are associated with its origin. One of the popular myths associated with its origin can be traced to the great Indian epic, Ramayana. In Ramayana, when Rama returned to his kingdom Ayodha with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana after 14 years of exile and after vanquishing Ravana, the people of Ayodha welcomed their return by cleaning their homes and placing oil lamps to light Rama, Sita and Lakshmana’s path. 

This celebration of mythical origin to commemorate the return of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana to Ayodha is believed to have eventually snowballed into our familiar Diwali celebrations over the course of millennia, where people decorate their homes with lights, diyas and candles. Probably the usage of fireworks in Diwali celebrations owes its emergence to the invention of gunpowder.

Fireworks dotting the sky. Photo by Anirudh on Unsplash

Fireworks and Festivity 

“The use of fireworks in the celebration of Diwali, which is so common in India now, must have come into existence after about 1400 AD, when gunpowder came to be used in Indian warfare,” stated late historian P K Gode in his account, ‘History of Fireworks in India between 1400 and 1900,’ which was published in 1950. However, fireworks became an essential characteristic of Diwali celebrations only since a century or so.

In popular parlance comprehensive Diwali celebrations not only include Diwali but cover five days of festivities, which comprise Dhan Teras, Chhoti Diwali, the main Diwali celebration where the Goddess Laxmi – the Goddess of wealth is being worshipped, Govardhan Puja, and Bhai Dooj (the festival celebrates the sacred bond between brothers and sisters). However, this sequence of mainstream Diwali festivity is not necessarily followed in every Diwali celebration in India.

Diversity in Diwali 

India is a highly culturally diverse country and ways of celebrations of Diwali vary in the country.  The Jains celebrate Diwali to commemorate the final liberation of the great Jain saint Mahavira who was the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism, while for many Hindus of West Bengal, Odisha and Assam the celebration of Diwali goes along with the worship of the Goddess Kali, which is termed as Kali Puja. Kali Puja is dedicated to the Goddess Kali, the Goddess Durga’s fierce avatar.

In Kali Puja, which takes place mostly on the same day as Diwali or sometimes one day ahead of Diwali, the idol of Goddess Kali is worshipped in temples and households with offerings of red hibiscus flowers, sweets, rice and lentils. Kali Puja usually takes place overnight. In Dakshineshwar and Kalighat temples in Kolkata, Kali Puja takes place with much grandiose.

Sikhs celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas which often overlaps with Diwali. Bandi Chhor Divas commemorates the release of the sixth Sikh Guru, Guru Hargobind along with 52 Hindu kings and princes from the prison, on the orders of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. Bandi Chhor Divas is celebrated through lighting of homes and Gurdwaras, celebratory processions and organising  langar ( community kitchen.) 

Diwali marks the end of the year for many traditional Gujaratis. Bestu Varas is the Gujarat’s New Year’s Day, which is celebrated by Gujaratis on the next day of Diwali. In Gujarat celebrations associated with Diwali begins with Vaag Baras, followed by Dhanteras, Kali Chaudash, Diwali, Bestu Varas, and Bhai Bij.

Rangolis are colourful patterns drawn on floor with powdered chalk, limestone etc. Photo by Sandeep Kr Yadav on Unsplash

In Goa, Diwali celebrations are about Krishna’s slaying of the demon Narkasur. In Goa, a day before Diwali, huge effigies of the demon Narkasur are burnt down on the dawn. The day before Diwali is known as Narakasura Chaturdashi, which north India celebrates as Chhoti Diwali. Many people in Goa and parts of South India smear coconut oil on their bodies to absolve themselves of sin during Diwali. 

In Tamil Nadu and Karnataka also, Diwali is celebrated as the vanquishing of Narakasura and not to celebrate Rama, Sita and Lakshmana’s return to Ayodha. In most parts of India, celebration of Diwali begins just after sunset whereas in Tamil Nadu, Diwali commences just before sunrise. In Tamil Nadu, Diwali celebration is of one day only and not includes five days of festivities.

Though the celebration of Diwali in India may differ from state to state but the underlying theme of triumph of light over darkness and good over evil remains the same.

The global popularity of Diwali can be easily gauged from the fact that the main Diwali celebration of the five-day-long festivities associated with Diwali (the day of Lakshmi Puja) is not only celebrated as an official holiday in India but according to Wikipedia, it is an official holiday in many other nations across the world which include Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, Malaysia, NepalSri Lanka, Suriname,  and Trinidad and Tobago among others.

Evolving Trends 

However, now the advancing consumer culture and rapid corporatisation is bringing a sort of uniformity in Diwali celebrations across big cities of India, thereby compromising on its rich diversity. People go on a buying spree of consumer goods (latest smart phone, fancy television set, gold, etc.) some days before Diwali and this trend continues till Diwali.

It seems the celebration of Diwali is moving from the devotional road to the material route in post-modern India.  

Diwali in India is also a platform for public relations exercise through gift exchange across people who are linked with each other only through business.

Growing environment consciousness among people and the state governments has managed to curtail the usage of firecrackers during Diwali in India during the recent times, which is a positive sign. For the Diwali celebrations in this year, several states of India have put restrictions/bans on sale and usage of firecrackers. By doing away with crackers we can light up a healthy Diwali, both in our homes and in our minds…