The Hindu Festival of Light: Diwali

In a country where religion has major influence on people’s lives, and the idols, in their many and varied forms, determines one’s destiny and happiness, it is not surprising to observe the happiness and strong feelings people show when celebrating these gods through various festivals.

Of all these festivals perhaps Deepawali, or Divali (depending on where you are in India) is on top of the list, as it combines a tremendous amount of fun with the religious aspect. A stroll through one of India’s streets during the five days the festival lasts will give you an enlightening sight, a cacophony of sound, lots of sweets and an explosive experience. We are not talking about the explosives used in terrorist activities, but fireworks in all colors! Diwali is celebrated with a big bang!
Almost every Indian festival are accompanied by a famous, repeated, well-known story of the struggle between good and evil. Diwali is no exception to this rule of thumb.
But first, nomenclature: The Sanskrit word Deepavali can be broken down to the “Deep” which means “light” and “avali” which means “a row” – and thus translates into “a row / line of light.”

 This is a reference to the row of lights that greeted Lord Rama (a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu) welcomed on his arrival back to Ayodhya after fourteen years in exile. An abbreviation of the original word, gave us “Diwali” which is the most used. Diwali, as already mentioned, extends over five days and includes several mini-festivals and rituals that build up to the main celebration. Thus, each day has a special importance and influence on the overall celebration of this festival of light. Diwalis first day falls on the thirteenth day of the month Ashwin. Homes and offices are richly decorated, sometimes with a small footprint, to highlight and celebrate the arrival of Lakshmi – the goddess of prosperity and progress. This is how the goddess is being remembered in an attempt to ensure financial success in the coming year.
Small lights in ceramic or clay pots are lighted during the Lakshmi prayers in the evening, and kept alive through the night to chase away the evil spirits that lurk in the shadows. Religious songs are sung in honor of Lakshmi, and traditional sweets, Naivedya, is offered in villages across the country. Cows are decorated and worshiped as the reincarnation of Lakshmi, and is considered to be a source of prosperity.
A story about King Himas young son’s escape from death’s trap is associated with the next day. It was predicted that the boy would die of snakebite on the fourth day of his life as a married man, but his young wife would not put up with it. To ensure that her husband would stay awake through the night, she put out a big pile of her jewelry at the entrance to his chambers and enlightened everything by the help of lights she lit around the jewelry. Then she sat down to sing and tell stories. When Yama, the god of death, arrived in the shape of a snake, he was blinded by the light and the shining jewels. He was enchanted by her beautiful voice and song, and by the night’s end he went away without killing the prince. The young woman wondered fate and death, and thus saved her husband’s life. Since then, this day was known as “Yamadee Daan”, and lamps are kept lighted during the night in respect of Yama, the god of death.

God is busy reading todays news...

God is busy reading todays news...

The story also says that the king of demons, Narakasura, ruler of Pragiyotishpur (a province south of Nepal) after defeating Lord Indra, stole the magnificent earrings of Aditi (Mother Goddess) and imprisoned 16,000 daughters of the gods and saints in his harem.
Lord Krishna came to the rescue, freed all the girls in distress and killed Narakasura by crushing his head. And, as a macabre ending, he rubbed the Demons blood on his forehead.
Krishna returned early Narakachaturdashi morning, whereupon the girls massaged his body with fragrance oils and gave him a good bath to clean him!! (Ooooh, delicious, wonderful!) Since then the practice of taking a bath added sandalwood paste and scented oils before sunrise on this day, has become a tradition.

Another legend tells us about King Bali, inhabitant of the heathen world, whos power had become a threat to the gods. In order to limit his powers Lord Vishnu visited Hani in the figure of a little boy and asked him to give him as much land as he could step over at three steps.
Known for his philanthropy King Bali met the boy’s desire.
Vishnu took his original form, and took steps over the earth and sky with only two steps, and then asked Bali where he could place the third. Bali, in his inferiority, offered his head. Vishnu agreed with Bali and trampled him down in the underworld. But King Bali’s generosity did not go unnoticed. Lord Vishnu gave him the light of knowledge, and allowed him to return to earth once a year to light millions of lamps and spread the love and wisdom light.

In South India the divines victory over evil is marked in an unusual way. People get up before sunrise and make “blood” by mixing Kum Kum in oil, bring mixture to a bitter vegetable or fruit seed and then crush it in the ground. Mixture is then smeared across the forehead like an imitation of Lord Krishnas known action. The fruit symbolizes the demons head and the mixture the demons blood. Narachaturdash day is dedicated to lights and prayers to signal a future full of joy and knowledge.
This day, when the sun enters its second phase and passes Libra which is represented in the form of a weight, will be marked by ending the previous year’s accounts. Drums and singing fills the atmosphere, and some believe that the goddess Lakshmi hear these songs and honor the earthlings all with her presence. Her presence is spreading good fortune and wisdom, and removes the shadows of ignorance. People are blessed and progress is the key word for the day.
When night falls you dress up in new clothes, visit friends and loved to give gifts, eat together and share the joy.

The story also includes that the goddess Parvati played dice this evening with her husband Lord Shiva, and therefore it would be auspicious to try your hands on a deck of cards. Gambling is a common practice on the third day of festivities.
The following day, Amavasya, is the day when King Bali comes from Pathal Loka and rule over Bhulok. For this reason, the day is known as Baliyapadami. This day also marks the coronation of King Vikramaditya. The people of Gokul used to have a festival in honor of Lord Indra and worshiped him at the end of the monsoon period (the rainy period in India). This tradition continued until the year in which a young Lord Krishna stopped them from offering sacrifices to Lord Indra, who in anger sent a heavy rain to drown Gokul. Lord Krishna saved Gokul by lifting Govardhan mountain and holding it over the people as an umbrella. On this day many farmers adorn their piles of cow dung with flowers. The day also marks the new year and symbolizes the love between husband and wife, and is marked by gift exchanges and new clothes.
Diwalis last day marks the love between brothers and sisters. It was on this day, Lord Yama went to his sister’s house to get the “tikka” smeared on the forehead and be decorated with flower garlands. Lord Yama said that anyone who did this to this day would be honored. And so it is common for brothers to go to his sister’s house to celebrate “Bhai dooj”.
Whether it is an annual reminder of the triumph of good over evil, or if it’s just an excuse to buy new clothes, eat good food and set off some fireworks, Diwali keeps a special place in any Indians heart. And also in mine.
Dill Valo ki India!

Divali is celebrated on the day of the month (‘Amavasyaa’ – normally in the month of October or November) in the Hindu month Kartika. This is approx. the fifteenth day of the month Kartika.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy Kates post on the Taj Mahal. Visit her blog at: http://wordifications.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/visit-the-taj/

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13 thoughts on “The Hindu Festival of Light: Diwali

  1. Hi! How long have you been in India? Are you only in the north? We live in Kerala and I haven’t had a chance to travel north yet. Here’s one of my posts about Tamil Nadu, (http://raxacollective.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/vella-kkaran/) although we write about Community, Collaboration and Conservation initiatives around the world. (plus other things…) I remember Diwali last year. It’s actually not celebrated specifically here, but there are so many north Indians living in Kerala that they have brought it with them.

    Good luck on your travels-I enjoyed your blog!

    • Hi Raxa Collective.
      I was there for 1 year (including some months in Nepal) and I travelled in the North/North-Western part of the country. I haven’t been to Kerala, but I would love to go some day.
      Nepal is also great and it has a total different vibe compared to India (North-India) – the Nepalese are much more relaxed and less intense.

      Thanks, and good luck on your conservation initiatives 🙂

  2. For me, Diwali is “family time”. Celebrating together…just to be together. 🙂

    Great post. You have learned a lot about it. 🙂

    • Since I spent quite some time in India I felt I had to learn about the country while I was there. I didn’t want to just spend time there without at least learning something of the Indian country & culture.

  3. Pingback: The Underwater World (Weekly Photo Challenge – Wonders) « Cardinal Guzman

  4. You know many more stories than me! For me Diwali is a holiday and time when I escape my work for a mini vacation. I travel during Diwali,so not celebrated it since last 10 years. As I get long leave only during this period, I run away!

    • Thanks Sonali. I had to do a lot of research for this article. Originally it was written for a Norwegian newspaper, that’s why it’s so extensive and thorough.

      I can see why you choose to travel during Divali. It’s a wise thing to take advantage of all those days off.

  5. This is very interesting. I’ve only ever heard the stories, never bothered explaining them to anyone, but you’ve done a great job. And what a marvelous set of pictures to accompany it!

    Thanks for sharing the link 🙂

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