One festival, two myths


Poornima Koonath on why Diwali is such a cracker of a celebration

Festival wise, the months leading up from August seem to be the busiest on the Indian calendar. Of all these festivals, the one that is celebrated by with gusto and lots of fanfare is North and South India is Diwali or Deepavali. The traditions and rituals of the people in the northern and southern parts are quite different in this vast country. And though Diwali is celebrated around the same time, the northern and the southern states celebrate it for very different reasons.

For South Indians, Deepavali (as it is called down South) falls on the fifteenth day of the Hindu month Ashwin, and the celebrations last for four days. The festival celebrates the vanquishing of the demon Narakasura by Lord Krishna and his consort Satyabhama. It is believed that the Gods approached Lord Krishna for help from the torture of Narakasura who had imprisoned their daughters and Lord Krishna along with his wife Satyabhama killed the demon and freed the women. The story says that after killing the demon, Lord Krishna smeared the blood on his forehead and then had a bath with scented oil. This custom is followed even today, where people smear their forehead with kumkum, symbolising the blood of the slain demon before an oil bath.

The celebrations in West Bengal differ a little from the celebrations in the rest of the states as the Bengalis worship Goddess Kali instead of Goddess Lakshmi

The preparations however begin the day before, when the stove is cleaned, smeared with lime, four or five kumkum dots are applied, and then it is filled with water for the next day’s oil bath. Fresh traditional sweets are prepared and the house is washed and decorated with rangoli patterns using kavior red oxide. The pooja room is decorated with flowers, betel leaves and nuts, fruits, flowers, sandal paste, kumkum, incense sticks, etc. Crackers and new clothes that are placed in a plate also get a little smear of kumkum or sandal paste. On the day, Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped. Some people also offer prayers to their ancestors. At dusk, the house is lit with diyas or oil lamps and the evening is spent bursting crackers and eating sweets with family and friends. In Tamil Nadu, the first Deepavali after marriage is called Thalai Deepavali. The newlyweds go to the bride’s home for the revelry, and are pampered by family members, showered with gifts and burst the first set of crackers as part of the celebration. The groom’s family is invited to the celebrations. This year the South Indians celebrate Deepavali on 18 October. Kerala is the only state in the South that does not celebrate Deepavali as part of their tradition.

The North Indians will celebrate Diwali this year on 19 October. It is celebrated over a period of five days. On this day, the people commemorate the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya after the 14-year exile period, during which time he also vanquished the demon king, Ravana. People decorate their homes with diyas and burst crackers to mark this celebration. They don new clothes and the air is festive and joyous. During Diwali Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped, whose blessings are believed to bring wealth, prosperity and peace. Lord Ganesh is also worshipped alongside Goddess Lakshmi. On the day of ‘Dhanteras’, which falls two days before Diwali, people purchase gold and/or silver. And those families who can’t afford gold or silver, purchase new utensils.

‘Ram Lila’, the dramatic interpretation of the story of Lord Rama is enacted in most street corners

The day before Diwali is celebrated is ‘Choti Diwali’. As the Hindi financial year is believed to start with Diwali, the day is an auspicious one to the trade and business community. The business community celebrates Diwali by opening new accounting books. Gambling during Diwali is believed to bring good luck and prosperity in the year ahead. ‘Ram Lila’, the dramatic interpretation of the story of Lord Rama is enacted in most street corners. As the lit Diwali lamps signify the victory of light over darkness, every corner of the house is lit with little lamps that are filled with oil or ghee as per the family’s financial capability. Along with Rangoli made with red kumkum, small feet of Goddess Lakshmi are painted all over the house, symbolising Her entry into the house.

Diwali to Hindus is what Christmas is to Christians or Ramadan to Muslims. But this one festival has many connotations. For the farming community Diwali marks the end of the harvest season and the onset of winter. Farmers thank the deities for the harvest they had and pray for a prosperous harvesting season in the upcoming year.

The celebrations in West Bengal differ a little from the celebrations in the rest of the states as the Bengalis worship Goddess Kali instead of Goddess Lakshmi. The lamps that are lit in temples and houses on the day, honour Goddess Kali and her power to destroy all evils. Diwali celebration in Odisha is unique in that it is marked by the calling of spirits of the family’s ancestors. This is done by the lighting up of an oil filled earthen lamp tied to a pole erected in front of the house. Rows of oil lamps, candles and lanterns adorn the thresholds of all houses.

Diwali is one of the oldest rituals for Kashmiri Pundits and the day is also of great significance to the people of the Sikh community. Guru Hargobindji, the sixth Guru, arrived in Amritsar on Diwali day free from Emperor Jahangir’s imprisonment. The Golden Temple was lit with hundreds of lamps to celebrate his return. Since he also managed to free 52 Hindu kings, the day is celebrated as the ‘Bandi Chhor Divas’ (prisoner release day).

As Lord Mahavira is believed to have attained ‘Moksha’ or Salvation on the day of Diwali, the Jain community in India celebrate the day as New Year’s Day. Diwali is a national holiday in not only in India but Trinidad and Tobago, Myanmar, Nepal, Mauritius, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Fiji as well. While in Malaysia, Diwali is celebrated as ‘Hari Diwali’, in Nepal it is referred to as ‘Tihar’ or ‘Swanti’. Interestingly on the fourth day of the festival, the Nepalis worship Yama, the Hindu God of Death for longevity. In Sydney, Diwali is celebrated throughout the month of October by various community groups. So, Diwali or Deepavali, however it is addressed gives everyone a reason to celebrate and have happy family times together—eating delicious sweets and bursting crackers. Wish you all a happy and prosperous festival season!


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