Diwali (Divali, Deepavali) is a festival of juxtapositions: light and dark, good and evil, ignorance and wisdom. Luckily, and to the delight of festival-goers around the world, goodness, light and wisdom always win out. This five-day Hindu festival (also celebrated by Buddhists, Sihks and Jains), is a dazzling homage to the beauty and joy of life.
What is Diwali / Deepavali?
Though primarily celebrated in India and across Asia, Diwali is an important event for Hindus across the globe. Even countries like Japan and Britain play host to this illuminating festival.
Held in October or November, Diwali began as an ancient Indian harvest festival and is closely tied to several influential Hindu gods. The word itself is derived from ‘avali’ (row) and ‘deepa’ (lamps) – the combination of which represents the rows of lights families place around their homes to symbolize the triumph of light over darkness.
Depending on the community, participants may dedicate the festival to gods Lakshmi, Vishnu, fierce Kali – goddess of strength, Lord Rama or even Ganesha – a revered symbol of wisdom and luck.
Divided into five equally significant days, Diwali marks several important events in Hindu history.
On day one (Dhanteras) revelers offer scrumptious snacks to Lord Yama to ward off untimely death. Curiously, Dhanteras is also an auspicious day to purchase gold and kitchen utensils.
Day two (Naraka Chaturdasi) is all about Lord Krishna’s defeat of the demon Naraka; while day three (Amayasya) is wholly devoted to Lakshmi. Hindus believe Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, happily fulfills the wishes of her followers when properly appeased. However, a different take on Amayasya touts the brave exploits of Lord Vishnu, who single handedly defeated the destructive Bali and sent him packing for the depths of hell. However, Vishnu was nice enough to grant Bali a yearly reprieve.
Hence, day four – Kartika Shudda Padyami – celebrates Bali’s annual return to earth to light lamps in honor of love and wisdom. On day five things settle down with a little family time. Traditionally this day (Yama Dvitiya or Bhai Dooj) is a time for sisters to share a meal with their brothers and respective families.
When is Diwali / Deepavali?
The date for Diwali is decided upon the Hindu lunar calendar. The festival usually falls between mid-October and mid-November.
Flash! Bang! Pop!
Diwali is a festival for the senses as well as the soul. Lanterns illuminate the night, incense fills the air, firecrackers echo and sugary treats abound, and in the midst of it all, everyone finds time for a little self-reflection.
Flaming diyas (small clay lanterns) and explosive firecrackers are the hallmarks of the Diwali celebration. While the diyas drive out the darkness (i.e. evil, negativity, etc.) and usher in health, prosperity and peace; the popping firecrackers are a symbol of earthly joy. However, serving the dual purpose of killing off post-rain mosquitos by the thousands is an added bonus.
All bets are on!
Though some cultures wring their collective hands at the thought of gambling, during Diwali it’s something of a sure bet. Goddess Parvati and Lord Shiva are apparently quite the dice enthusiasts, and are kind enough to bestow their good luck on believers. It is widely thought that those who gamble in the name of their beloved Gods during Diwali will reap their rewards throughout the year. However, gaming isn’t just limited to tossing the dice; traditional card games, charades, musical chairs and scavenger hunts are also popular.
Working up a Diwali appetite
In the days and weeks leading up to Diwali families spend hours making sure their homes are sparklingly clean, well-decorated and full of delicious aromas. Between the cooking, cleaning and craft projects, it’s amazing most families (women in particular) have enough energy to celebrate.
First and foremost, every family wants to give Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth, a proper welcome. Apparently Lakshmi is not a fan of dust and grime, and the household must be dowsed from top to bottom to insure her blessings. Even the inhabitants are scrubbed clean and dressed in new clothes.
After the deep cleansing, the home is festooned with flowers, hand-made diyas, torans (traditional Diwali door hangings), bells, mirrors and intricate rangoli – stunning folk art designs created with colored rice, sand or flower petals. With their brilliant colors and patterns, rangoli are said to negate unfriendly energies while adding peace and positivity to their surroundings.
When the cooking, cleaning and crafting is wrapped up, everyone is free to focus on the food. The typical Indian Diwali meal is a lavish affair. Families often play host to friends and loved ones, and begin preparing their favorite dishes sometimes weeks in advance. The end result is a mouth-watering array of sweet and savory delicacies like Gulab Jamun, Gajar Halwa, Besan Ke Ladoo and Dahi-bhalle.
Diwali goes global
- Diwali in the UK is all about spring cleaning, new clothes and twinkling lights. The city of Leicester hosts the country’s largest celebration, drawing thousands of revelers.
- Diwali in the USA features the same rangoli and diya seen in India; and celebrants often gather at community centers and halls to hob knob and munch those irresistible Diwali delicacies.
- Diwali down under is one explosive affair. Featuring some outstanding fireworks, the Australian celebration is a perfect opportunity for families to enjoy their heritage.
- Diwali Mauritius-style largely commemorates the return of Lord Rama after his 14-year exile. Diyas are lit, firecrackers shot into the sky and Goddess Lakshmi is honored in style.
- Diwali in Nepal has a few interesting twists. In addition to the standard family gatherings and lamp-lighting festivities, cows and dogs are honored and given special treats.
- Malaysians kick off their Diwali celebrations by bathing in oil, visiting temples and offering prayers – specifically to Lord Rama who defeated the demon-king Ravana.
- Diwali in Indonesia may be small, but Balinese Hindus turn the island into one hopping Diwali celebration that nearly mirrors that of India.
- Diwali in Trinidad is a grand nine-day affair punctuated by fantastic fireworks, music and dance performances and lots of show-stopping attire.
- Diwali in Singapore is packed with colorful flowers, garlands and flickering diyas. Families also crowd local temples offering prayers to Hindu deities.
- Diwali Fiji-style is a flashy affair, literally. Homes are decorated with flashing lights, feasts and sweets are shared and many non-Hindus join in the celebration.
No matter where you are in the world, Diwali is one unforgettable experience. Should you find yourself in the mix, just light a diya, send up a firecracker and celebrate the joy of living.