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India: Diwali, the festival of lights

By Kriti Gandhi 8 December 2020

Header image curtsey of CHIRU QI (via Unsplash)

Diwali (दिवाली), also known as Deepawali (दीपावली), is arguably the most prominent and celebrated festival in the Indian subcontinent. The celebration generally lasts for five days—each day with it’s own religious importance and purpose. Although it is predominantly celebrated by Hindus, Diwali is a significant festival in many other religions like Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. 

The festival of lights embodies the spiritual and religious victory of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance.

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Origins

Each religion has a different interpretation of the folklore behind the festival—Diwali is associated with different historical events and/or stories in each faith. Though the origin story of the festival varies from religion to religion, Diwali cohesively symbolises new spiritual beginnings in most cultures.

In Hindu mythology, Diwali marks the return of Lord Rama, his wife Sita Devi, and his brother Lakshmana after 14 years of exile. During their exile, Sita Devi was abducted by the evil demon King Ravana. Lord Rama and Lakshmana rescued Sita Devi from Lanka with the help of Hanuman and his monkey army. Upon their return to Ayodhya (अयोध्या), the city was lit with diyas (दिया; earthen oil lamps) in commemoration of Lord Rama’s bravery. Thus, the day Diwali represents the homecoming of the holy trio. This interpretation is considered the most common adaptation of the festival's backstory and is largely prevalent in Northern India.

Another Hindu Diwali story marks Diwali as the day Lord Krishna freed 16,000 captives and defeated the demon Narakasura. After slaying the demon, they celebrated with a full day of festivities. In many parts of India, people burn large figurines of the demon kings from both Hindu adaptations as a part of the celebration on the day of Dussehra (दशहरा).

Many Hindus also celebrate the goddess of prosperity, wealth, and fertility—Lakshmi—during Diwali. Legend says that on the night of Diwali, Goddess Lakshmi chose to take Lord Vishnu as her husband. In East India, Diwali is associated with Kali, a fierce avatar of Goddess Durga. Many other holy figures such as Goddess Saraswati, Lord Kubera, and Lord Ganesha, are also remembered on Diwali.

Regardless of which origin story you may choose to believe, Diwali is synonymous with harvest and new year celebrations and is always celebrated as a day of new beginnings and the victory of light over darkness.

When it is celebrated

Diwali is celebrated according to the Hindu lunisolar calendar, so the dates for festivals change each year. The five-day festival is celebrated during the Hindu lunisolar month Kartika (कार्तिका). Many rituals and preparations for the festival typically begin on Dussehra about 20 days before Diwali. On the Gregorian calendar, the festival generally falls between mid-October and mid-November.

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By John McMahon 15 November 2019
By Manasee Joshi 27 August 2020

Today, the Diwali festivities lasts for five days—each day of the festival is dedicated to different traditions and serves a different religious and cultural purpose.

Day 1: Dhanteras

Dhanteras (धनतेरस), the first day of Diwali, marks the 13th day of the Kartik month and the beginning of thel festival. Many Hindus clean their homes and offices to help bring good fortune to their families. Diyas, small earthen oil-filled lamps, are prepared and installed around the entrance of homes and offices, to be used and lit over the next five days.

Families come together to decorate their homes with bright colourful ornaments and religious symbols. The main doorways are adorned with rangolis (रंगोली; colourful mandala-like designs) made from rice flour, flowers, and coloured rice/sand. Homes, roofs, markets, and temples are all lit up with lanterns and string lights, hence the name “festival of lights“.

Dhanteras is also notoriously known as the day of Diwali shopping. As a major shopping day to purchase new utensils, home appliances, jewellery (particularly gold), and firecrackers, markets fill up with joyful crowds ready to take on the festivities. The evening of Dhanteras is reserved for the puja (पूजा; a worship ritual) of Goddess Laxmi and Lord Ganesha. The Hindu deities are presented with many offerings for good fortune and health.

In other parts of India, Dhanteras is also known as Yama Deepam (यम दीपम). On this day, Hindus light a diya that faces towards the south in the back of their homes to please Yamraj, the god of death, to ward off death and illness.

Dhanteras symbolises the auspicious beginning of a new year through various traditions, activities, and pujas.

Day 2: Choti Diwali, Kali Chaudas, Hanuman Puja

Chhoti Diwali (छोटी दिवाली; little diwali), also known as Naraka Chaturdashi (नरका चतुर्दशी), is the second day of the Diwali festivities. The day’s rituals are dedicated to liberating souls from their suffering in Naraka (नरका; hell) and serve as a reminder of spiritual auspiciousness. As a result, many Hindus pray for the peace of their ancestors and spiritually light their way towards the afterlife on this day. Chhoti Diwali is also the day people visit friends and relatives, often involving some kind of gift exchange.

Choti Diwali is a major day for purchasing festive foods, especially mithai (मिठाई; sweets). Saddus (लड्डू), barfis (बर्फी), and halwas (हलवा) are common sweets consumed during Diwali. These aesthetically pleasing mithais are often garnished with edible silver foil (vark). In addition to buying sweets, many families also use this day to prepare homemade delicacies for the Lakshmi Pujan (लक्ष्मी पूजन)—the third day of the festivals, also regarded as the main day of Diwali.

In Gujarat and other parts of India, the second day of Diwali is when they perform the Hanuman Puja. Many spirits are believed to wonder Earth on the night of Choti Diwali—Hanuman, the deity of strength and power, is worshipped to on this night as a way to seek protection from these evil spirits. It is believed that Lord Rama declared the day before Diwali as a day to worship Hanuman. As Diwali marks the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya, many devotees pray to Hanuman on this day to commemorate his devotion and dedication in helping Lord Rama rescue Sita and win the war.

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Day 3: Lakshmi Pujan, Kali Puja

The third day of Diwali is the epitome of the festival. Traditionally, people dress up in new clothes and wear their best outfits for the pujas. Women adorn themselves in colourful traditional attire and decorate their hands with mehendi (मेहंदी; henna). In the evening, families gather for the Lakshmi Pujan. Almost every household and temple in India light diyas. Many classic oil lamps from the puja are used to light up homes while some are set adrift on rivers. The rituals and ceremonies performed on Diwali are dedicated to Lakshmi—these traditions aim to welcome the goddess into their cleaned homes so that she may bless the family with a prosperous and happy new year. The diyas placed inside and outside of the homes are lit to create a welcoming pathway for the deity.

After the puja, people celebrate the new beginning by lighting firecrackers with their friends and family. The firecrackers also serve as a symbolic farewell to recently departed ancestors. While they may add to the festive spirit, firecrackers also serve to ward off evil spirits.

Younger members of a family are expected to visit their elders and other senior members of the community for blessings. At this time, business owners would also give gifts or special bonuses to their employees. Unlike other Hindu festivals, people generally do not fast during the Diwali festivities—rather, those who celebrate feast and share all kinds of delicious food with each other.

While celebrations of Jains and Sikhs remain fairly similar to Hindus, the Bengali Hindu community focuses their prayers towards the goddess of war, Kali, instead of Lakshmi. Many celebrate Diwali by lighting up fireworks, sharing and eating festive food, and visiting relatives.

Day 4: Annakut, Govardhan Puja

The first day after Diwali marks the beginning of the luni-solar calendar. Although there are various stories about the origin of the traditions, this day ritually celebrates familial bonds, particularly between the husband and wife. Husbands are supposed to honour their wife by giving them gifts. In some regions of India, families invite newly married couples to celebrate their new beginning together by sharing a meal and exchanging presents.

In north and central India, the fourth day is celebrated by honouring Lord Krishna through the Govardhan Puja (गोवर्धन पूजा). The ceremony is a celebration of a good harvest—prayers are also geared towards a hopeful and better agricultural cycle in the coming year.

Literally translating to “mountains of food”, the Annakut (अन्नकूट) tradition carries agricultural symbolism and significance. Families come together to prepare over one hundred dishes that are dedicated to Krishna and later shared with the community. On this day, Hindu temples prepare a feast for all devotees who have gathered for darshan (दर्शन; visit for prayers). Annakut, recognised as the first day of the new year, is celebrated through the purchase of essentials and visiting temples.

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Day 5: Bhai Duj, Vishwakarma Puja

The festival ends with Bhai Duj (भाई दूज; brother's day) celebrating the bond between a brother and sister. Unlike Raksha Bandhan (रक्षाबंधन), another Hindu festival that honours the sibling bond, brothers travel to meet their sisters on this day. To honour traditions, women perform a puja for the wellness and safety of their brothers.

Legend says that Yama's sister, Yamuna, welcomed him with a tilak (तिलक; a sacred mark on the forehead). Others interpret the origin story as the day Krishna arrived at his sister's place after defeating the demon, Narakasura. In both stories, the bond between a brother and sister is celebrated over a new hopeful beginning.

In other parts of India, some Hindu and Sikh communities celebrate the fifth day as the day of the Vishwakarma puja (विश्वकर्मा पूजा). As the deity of architecture, textile work, and crafts trades, prayers are offered to Vishwakarma in hopes of a better and more prosperous new business year.

The family-oriented day marks the end of the eventful five-day festival, Diwali.

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Kriti Gandhi

Former editorial intern

Kriti was born in Mumbai but raised in Hong Kong and shares a strong bond with both places. As a current journalism student, she is keen on writing, sharing stories, and has a growing interest in photography. When she is not reading (Harry Potter, or anything really), you’ll find her exploring the city, attempting to skateboard, and finding new dumpling places.

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