This Indian festival, one of the most widely celebrated and anticipated, is an occasion that sumptuously overwhelms the senses with its glowing lights, sparkling fireworks, deeply resonant rituals and delectable sweet preparations, all drawn into the magic circle of community celebrations marked by warmth, goodwill and the all powerful obeisance to the triumph of good over evil.
The underlay of Diwali is born of the diversity of Hindu mythology. Like a confluence of many rivers into one mighty, expansive ocean, the many celebrations of Diwali in India, though diverse in their observances and rituals, are nevertheless a reiteration of the unity of belief in power of divinity to shape our lives. There is a shared spiritual understanding even while it is accentuated by each region’s local traditions.
Gulf News presents the various nuances of how Diwali or Deepavali, the magnificent Festival of Lights, is observed in the four quadrants of India.
The primary skein of mythology that ties Diwali celebrations in the northern Indian states is taken from the Ramayana, a Hindu epic, which tells the story of King of Ayodhya, Rama, who gets into a battle with the Demon King of Lanka, Ravana to win back his wife, Sita, who has been abducted by him. After a mighty battle, the victorious Rama and his wife Sita return to Ayodhya.
The triumphant return, symbolic of the prevailing of good over evil, was celebrated by the townspeople by lighting thousands of clay lamps and the bursting of firecrackers.
Many Hindus also associate the festival with Lakshmi, the deity of wealth and prosperity, and wife of Vishnu.
North Indians have extended Diwali celebrations. Three days before Diwali, families observe the day of Dhanteras, a day that is considered auspicious to purchase gold, silver and copper items, which symbolises the advent of wealth. The next day, ‘chhoti’ Diwali or small Diwali is celebrated.
Homes are given a thorough spring cleaning, and entrances and courtyards decorated with floral motifs called rangolis and oil lamps are lit (in the evening). The lighting of lamps also signfies the dispelling of darkness (ignorance) through the spread of light (awareness).
The Hindi financial year starts with Diwali and hence, this day is auspicious for traders and businessmen.
On the day of Diwali, as the sun sets, special prayers and rituals are dedicated to the female deity Lakshmi, who symbolises wealth and prosperity. After the prayers, the entire house, inside and out, is decorated with oil lamps.
Gifts and sweets are exchanged with family and friends and neighbours and people burst firecrackers.
It’s more about Kali Puja in the East
What is Diwali or the Festival of Lights in other parts of the country comes in a different avatar in the eastern part of India – Kali puja. It’s a Puja (form of worship) dedicated to the worship of Goddess Kali.
The ritual did not quite exist before 18th century when the puja was introduced in Bengal by Lord Krishna Chandra of Navadwip. His legacy was taken forward by his grandson and gradually, Kali puja became one of the most popular forms of worship in Bengal after Durga Puja. Assam – where the Kamkahya temple celebrates one of the biggest pujas- Bihar, Odisha, Tripura also worship Kali while neighbouring countries Nepal and Bangladesh also have a culture.
The regular image of Kali invokes fear, but Goddess Kali is seen as the loving and caring mother who destroys all the negative energies surrounding her devotees. She is the manifestation of supreme power and is looked upon to eradicate all impurities, negativity and darkness within her devotees.
On the Puja day, many devotees honour the deity by decorating their homes and equipping them with small shrines for her.
The appointed time for the worship would be late evening hours, where she is worshiped using mantras and Tantric rites and is offered red hibiscus flowers and various food offerings which may include lentils, rice, meat, and fish. Sometimes, devotees ritually sacrifice animals on this day, although that practice has been discouraged over the last few years.
The temples and shrines display one of the most prevalent images of the Goddess Kali. She is shown with a garland composed of the heads of all the demons she has slain through timel and with one of her feet on the chest of Lord Shiva – holding him down. She is often also portrayed with a sword in one hand and a noose in another. People often leave offerings of sweetmeats, rice, lentils and red hibiscus flowers at these images, in a way similar to what is followed in homes.
The Diwali celebrations then take over with fanfare. The community pujas, along with their lights and décor, lights up the City of Joy – while each household is decked up with diyas or small chain of lights in a symbolic gesture to ward off darkness or evil.
The crackers come out in all shapes and sizes – from the innocuous sparklers to the often heart-stopping bombs. They are a part of the festivities, but can also become a torture by jolting you awake in the night.
West India places a special significance on Diwali. Celebrations in states like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra start earlier than the rest of India. Diwali in West India, particularly in Gujarat has some striking differences.
The celebrations begin on the 11th day of waning lunar cycle. On the 12th day, ‘Vagh Baras’ is celebrated which is dedicated to the calf and her mother cow. The 13th day is celebrated as ‘Dhanteras’ like the rest of India.
It is a tradition to buy one or more new utensils or gold and silver jewellery on this day. The day is also marked by decorating houses with lamps and ‘rangoli (intricate motifs drawn on the floor using coloured powders). Of particular mention in some homes are the tiny footprints made out of vermillion powder and rice flour that signify the arrival of the female deity of wealth, Lakshmi. Lamps are kept alight throughout the night.
The 14th day of the waning moon is celebrated as ‘Kali Chaudas’ in Gujarat. And then comes the actual day of Diwali, the 15the day of the lunar cycle. And finally, the 16th day, Day 6, is marked as the auspicious new year, that is an extremely important day for Gujaratis.
The last day of Diwali in western India is also marked as Bhai Dooj or Bhaiyya Dooj, that celebrates the brother-sister bond.
In Maharashtra, celebrations begin on the 12th day of waning lunar cycle. This day is celebrated as Vasu-Baras, the Marathi New Year.
This day is celebrated as Vasu-Baras, the Marathi New Year.
The day after Vasu-Baras is celebrated as Dhanteras or Dhantrayodashi, a festival for wealth and prosperity, where Maharashtrians buy precious metals like gold, silver, and utensils as a precursor to prosperity entering their homes.
After Dhanteras, the next day is celebrated as Naraka Chaturdashi in Maharashtra. People wake up at the crack of dawn and undertake a ritual cleansing bath with perfumed oils and traditional exfoliants such as sandalwood, turmeric and camphor.
Following Naraka Chaturdashi, is the main day of Diwali, when the celebrations and festivities get into full swing. Homes are given a thorough cleaning and in the evening prayers are offered to female deity Lakshmi, who symbolises wealth. Entrances and inner and outer courtyards in homes are decorated with rangoli to honor and welcome the deity Lakshmi .
Sweets and savouries are prepared through the days and family and friends meet and greet each other, exchanging wishes and gifts.
Deepavali is the most-awaited festival of the year. The festivities start almost a week in advance when families purchase fire crackers and new clothes and begin the preparation of sweets and savouries at home.
In Tamil Nadu, Deepavali is celebrated on the Naraka Chaturdashi. According to Hindu mythology, that this was day when demon Naragasura was slayed by Lord Krishna and his wife Satyabhama. Krishna is considered to be the avatar of Vishnu the Preserver, one of the triumvirate of the Hindu trinity of gods
The celebrations begin with a small amount of fire crackers being burst and the house lit with small oil lamps or diyas. Youngsters vie with each other to get the crackers going at the earliest possible hours of the day.
Preparations then begin for most important ritual of the day, Gangasnanam (Ganga bath), which is having an oil bath before dawn. Another important factor, which got left behind with time, was the playing of a reed wind instrument called the Nadaswaram (reed wind instrument) and Tavil (a barrel shaped percussion instrument) by visiting players, who would perform a rhythm or two. They would then be honoured with gifts of fruit and cash.
After the bath, new clothes are worn and fireworks begin. After dawn, sweets are exchanged between neighbours and friends and preparations for a grand lunch begins. The youth get together to burst more crackers or wish and greet. Some pay a visit to their favourite temple.
Over the years however, Deepavali celebrations have undergone dramatic changes. Social gatherings have given way to channel-surfing as special Diwali television programmes dominate the evening aganda.
Deepavali in Telugu states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is celebrated over two to four days, and in some cases for a week until Naga Panchami.
The celebrations begin with Dhana Trayodasi (Dhanteras in North India) and continue with Naraka Chaturdasi the following day and Diwali the third day. People in some Telangana districts adjoining the neighbouring Maharashtra celebrate Bhai Dooj on the fourth day.
For most people back home, preparations begin a few weeks ahead of the festival: getting their homes painted or whitewashed, buying clothes or getting them stitched and buying crackers and fireworks that are dried in the sun to ensure they light up well or burst without turning into damp squibs.
Clay oil lamps, called pramida, are bought by the dozen, which are used on all days of the festival. Deepavali gets its name from this arrangement of lights. Deepam is lamp and vali means a row.
Now, of course, you get diya-shaped electrical LED lights that most people find convenient to use.
Women folk prepare traditional Andhra sweets such as laddoo, kajjikaya, ariselu and delectable savouries as well, which they share and exchange with friends and neighbours during the festival.
Gulf News spoke to a few Telugu expatriates in UAE to know how they celebrate the festival:
Deepika Baba, who hails from Nellore in Rayalaseema of Andhra Pradesh, says Dhanteras is her favourite day of the festival because she coaxes her husband Kishore to buy gold and jewellery.
She buys Indian sweets to be distributed to friends and workers in their company on Naraka Chaturdasi day. And on the day of Deepavali, she makes pulihora, paravannam (sweet rice), vada and dappalam as offering to Lakshmi Devi.
Sony Kiran, who is from Anakapalle from the fertile coastal belt of Andhra, recalls how exciting it was to celebrate in a 60-member extended joint family back home.
She says all the family members take oil bath on Naraka Chaturdasi before sunrise and the children are given laddoos and other home-made sweets.
At sunset, five oil lamps are lit and everyone enjoys ariselu and kajjikayalu. On Deepavali it’s more sweets that also include jangri. But now since all have become health conscious, she says, she has cut down sweets and buys some only to give as gifts to friends.
Sony, who loved to burst crackers, has realised these fireworks add to pollution so she has stopped this long back and instead lights up the whole house in dazzling lights and lamps.
Sridevi Srinivas from Karimnagar, in Telangana, too celebrates like the other two Telugu ladies, but on Naraka Chaturdasi day her sisters-law (husband’s sisters) do the arati for the couple and they in turn give them money or gifts.
For Deepavali, they set up a Bommala Koluvu (doll arrangement) where the lady of the house gives tamboolam (a gift comprising a fruit, blouse piece and turmeric and vermilion) to women guests who are invited to see their doll display.
In the evening Kedaraswara Murthy vratam is performed. The following day, they observe Bhai Dooj — a North Indian influence. Women go to their parents or bother’s homes where they are lavished with gifts.
What is Naraka Chaturdasi:
According to Puranas, the story of the demon Narakasura spans three Yugas.
A Yuga is an epoch or era. Now we are in Kali Yuga, the last of the four-era cycle, which is believed to have started with the end of the Kurukshetra War between Pandavas and Kauravas in 3102 BCE.
Coming back to the lore, in Satya Yuga, Hiranyaksha, an invincible demon king, tries to bury Mother Earth deep in the netherworlds when Sri Maha Vishnu rescues her in his Varaha avatar (an incarnation in the form of a wild boar) and kills the tormentor of the whole world.
He is reborn as a son to Bhudevi (Mother Earth) with a boon that he be killed only by his mother, believing that no mother would kill her own son.
In Treta Yuga, he starts ruling over Pragjyotishpur (present day Assam in northeast India). Later in the company of Banasura, a demon king, Naraka too becomes evil. So evil that even Rishis and Devas shudder at the mere mention of his name.
He captivates 16,000 princesses and an even more number of princes to sacrifice them to deity Kamakhya to fulfil his dream of ruling over the world forever.
Things come to a flashpoint in Dwapara Yuga when Naraka drives Indra away from the heaven to lord over Devaloka as well.
Everyone turns to Krishna, a reincarnation of Vishnu, to relieve them from the evil incarnate.
Krishna’s consort Satyabhama accompanies him as he prepares for a war with Narakasura. In the ferocious fight with the demon, Krishna momentarily passes out, when an infuriated Satyabhama takes over and kills Naraka.
Wait, what about his boon that he’ll be killed only by his mother? Well, Satyabhama is none other than Bhudevi herself.
Having killed her own progeny, she expresses her wish that the day be remembered after him. That’s how the day is celebrated as Naraka Chaturdasi.
Even if the story is rejected as just mythology, it puts across a moral that in the company of evil people even we tend to turn evil.
Anyone who shows us narakam (hell) on the earth is Narakasura. And the most important one: mother should not hesitate to discipline a wayward son even if he’s the apple of her eyes.
What is Dhanteras:
It’s traditionally celebrated as Dhanwantry Trayodasi, which had been shortened to Dhanteras. It marks the emerging of the celestial doctor Dhanwantry when the Ocean of Milk was churned by Devas and Asuras (gods and demons).
He is believed to have brought Ayurveda for the good health of all.
But over the years, people have misconstrued the first half of Dhanteras as ‘dhan’ meaning wealth, which has been gainfully exploited by jewellers who started propagating that it’s auspicious to buy gold and silver on this particular day.