Diwali: a quick guide to India’s festival of lights

Today, more than a billion people all over the world are marking Diwali. Like most major religious festivals – think Christmas or Eid – in today’s world, Diwali is more than a reflection of its faith-based underpinnings; it’s a celebration of family, friendship, and community.

Having lived in India for a decade during my twenties, I experienced first-hand the annual jamboree that accompanies the ‘festival of lights’. The festival’s name derives from the row (avali) of clay lamps (deepa) that are lit in their billions inside and outside Indian homes to symbolize the spiritual light that protects us from the darkness. When combined, the Sanskrit word becomes dipavali – Diwali. 

So what is Diwali’s history? Its meaning?

As noted in a 2020 article by Amy McKeever in National Geographic, the first thing to understand is that Diwali is not exclusively celebrated by Hindus – it is also observed among Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists. Because of this, according to McKeever, there is no single origin story for the festival. What is common, however, is the notion of the festival representing ‘the triumph of good over evil.

Perhaps the provenance story that we are most familiar with in the West stems from northern India, where Diwali commemorates Prince Rama’s triumphant return to the city of Ayodhya following years of exile. During this time, he was faced with the task of rescuing his wife Sita who had been kidnapped by evil Lord Ravana – a tale recorded in the Hindu epic Ramayana.  Diwali is celebrated 20 days after Lord Ram is purported to have killed Ravana.

In the southern half of India, Diwali commemorates a different victory – Lord Krishna defeating the demon king Narakasura. For Sikhs, McKeever states that Diwali recalls the release of the 17th-century guru Hargobind following his imprisonment by Mughal emperor Jahangir. 

Whether or not today’s celebrants dwell on these details is irrelevant. What matters is the essential message of Diwali, a message handed down through oral and written tradition by the world’s oldest recorded religion, a message of light triumphing over darkness, of good beating out evil.

Diwali is also aligned closely with hopes of future prosperity. The festival celebrates the goddess of wealth and good fortune, Laxmi. In Mumbai, where I was based, every business – and most homes – use it to mark the start of a new financial year. 

Like other major festivals, Diwali is not confined to a single day. This five-day festival starts with Dhanteras, celebrating good luck, wealth and prosperity. On Dhanteras people buy jewellery and household utensils – it’s a bonanza for sellers of pots and pans! – because metal is believed to ward off bad luck. The house is cleaned and decorated with lamps and coloured designs known as rangolis. The next two days – known as Chhoti or ‘small’ Diwali and then Diwali ‘proper’, involve prayers, the lighting of the clay lamps, and fireworks. There’s feasting, gift-giving and charitable endeavour. Day four marks Govardhan puja, a special prayer, and the festival ends with a day dedicated to the love between siblings, specifically brothers and sisters.

This year, with lockdowns around the world and the socially distancing effects of the pandemic, Diwali has taken on a slightly different shape. Nevertheless, its central tenets remains the same: fun, family, friendship.

To all my friends currently celebrating: have a great day!

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