Every time I hear “Happy holidays,” I think about the Diwali festival we celebrate back in India, in October or November after the harvest. Like Christmas in Canada, it’s a broad celebration. Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and some Buddhists celebrate it in India and the world over. Many other Indians join in, too.
The word Diwali (or Deepavali as it is sometimes called) means “row of lights” in the ancient Indian language, Sanskrit. Diwali is the festival of lights. It symbolizes the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance.
The message of Diwali is universal. Light will always banish darkness, good will always triumph over evil, knowledge will erase ignorance, leading humanity to peace, progress, and prosperity. This gives us hope. No matter how bad situations may seem, there is reason for rejoicing.
As with Christmas, preparations for Diwali start many days or weeks before the festival begins. People spend a great deal of time cleaning, renovating, painting, and decorating homes, and buying clothes, food, and gifts for family members and friends.
Diwali celebrations last five days. The first day is called Dhandheras. This is an amalgamation of Sanskrit words dhan that stands for wealth, and teras that refers to the 13th day of the Hindu calendar. This day is dedicated to the worship of goddess Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth) and buying objects made of gold and silver.
The second day is Naraka Chaturdasi or Choti Diwali. According to Hindu mythology, on this day, Lord Krishna defeated Narakasur, the demon king.
The third day is the main celebration. Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha (god of knowledge and wisdom, and the one who removes all obstacles) are worshipped. Adherents believe that goddess Lakshmi enters homes and blesses devotees with good fortune and wealth on this day.
The third day also commemorates the return of Lord Ram, Sita and Lakshman to Ayodhya after defeating King Ravana. In Bengal, goddess Kali’s victory over evil is celebrated on this day.
The fourth day is Govardhan Puja or Padva in the northern provinces of India. In the western states of India, this day marks the New Year as per their calendar and is celebrated as Bestu Varas (New Year in Gujarati). It’s a day for starting new business.
The fifth and last day of the festivities is the Bhai Dooj. On this day, brothers visit their sisters and perform a “tilak” ceremony. A “teeka” (a mark) of rice and vermilion is applied on the brother’s forehead, which is followed by aarti (an offering of light). Sisters pray for brothers’ long life while brothers promise to protect sisters.
Bhai Dooj marks the end of a festival of pure joy, radiance and lights, a festival dear to every Indian.
Rangoli or Kolam is an art form originated in India thousands of years ago. It is a large, elaborate decoration made on the floor with coloured powders, rice flour, chalk, and fresh flowers. We make rangolis during Diwali and other Hindu festivals. Designs pass from one generation to the next, keeping both the art form and the tradition alive. Designs and colors vary greatly based on the regions of India. A rangoli is created at the entrance of the home to herald the coming of goddess Lakshmi.
During Diwali, people visit temples and offer gifts of sweets and flowers to their favorite deity and pray for happiness and prosperity for their families. Diwali is a family-oriented festival. People travel long distances to come home during this season and just being together is considered the biggest celebration.
As part of the celebration, special sweets are prepared and shared among family members, relatives and friends. Ladoos made of cottage cheese, coconut, moong dal, and wheat flour are very popular. Carrot halwa, corn flour halwa, and coconut halwa are some of the favorites. Different kinds of burfis, Jelebis, pedas, rasmalai, and gulab jamuns are some of the other common sweets made during Diwali.
In my state, Kerala, all the sweets and savories have the unique taste of coconut milk. (The name of the state itself means the land of coconut trees.) We use coconut in everything we cook.
Singing, dancing, and performances continue for five days. Fireworks form a major part of the entertainment. Even children are allowed to light sparklers and play with them, while being supervised. Indians spend millions buying fireworks every year.
The pomp and splendor of Diwali surpasses every other Indian festival. What a sight it is to see people celebrate! The whole world seems to glitter with decorations. The millions of diyas (small clay oil lamps) with their soft flames gently swaying in the breeze light up the whole earth. They seem to outshine the stars in the heavens.
The fragrance of rangoli flowers fill the air and awaken sweet memories of love and laughter. The bursting firecrackers, though loud, add to the joyous spirit of Diwali and spread cheer around. Celebrations continue till the early hours of the morning. And every heart dreams of a happier and prosperous life in the coming days and years.