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November 9, 2004 > Deepavali: A Festival of Lights

Deepavali: A Festival of Lights

by Mekala Raman

Many of us have heard of the jubilant "festival of the lights" celebrated by Hindus in India and descendents all over the world. What we don't know is what it celebrates other than lights, and how it is celebrated by the Indian population. Deepavali is a lunar festival and is celebrated on different days each year between the months of October and November. This year Deepavali falls on November 11th.

Deepavali means "row of lighted lamps" in Sanskrit, hence the name "Festival of Lights". The colloquial word Diwali is a contracted form of Deepavali. The lights symbolize the triumph of good over evil. In some parts of India it is celebrated as the defeat of Bali, in some other parts it is the defeat of Narakasura while in still others it is the celebration of the return of Rama after vanquishing the demon Ravana (Ramayana).

All over India people clean their houses and light lamps made of clay to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Gifts are exchanged and lavish meals are prepared to celebrate, similar to the way Christians celebrate Christmas. Each household also lights firecrackers on Deepavali. In cities like Mumbai (Bombay), paper lanterns are made and lit in storefronts and in homes. Houses are decorated with colorful, often elaborate, patterns called rangolis. Competitions are organized and the best rangoli patterns are awarded prizes.

You may be surprised to find that this festival is not celebrated the same way, nor does it mean the same thing, in different parts of India. In some parts of India this festival is celebrated for one day while in other parts it is celebrated for five days.

In Northern India, Deepavali celebrates the return of the god Rama to his city Ayodhya. Festivities begin around a month earlier during Navarathri/Dashera (see related article in Tri-City Voice 10/12/2004 During the twenty days between Dashera and Deepavali, families cook sweet and savory foods and share them with friends and relatives. The house is cleaned to welcome the goddess Lakshmi and to prepare for the monsoon season. "Two days before Diwali, we celebrate Dhanteras," says Chaya Joshi, who is originally from North India, "when we buy a new utensil that could be as simple as a teaspoon, or as elaborate as a silver bowl." This utensil is used to make a holy offering called prasad.

On the eve of Deepavali, people make an aipan (a pattern made with white paste) on their doorstep. Families also put lights all around their houses in divas, or lamps. These symbolize lights to help Lord Rama find his way back to Ayodhya through the darkness of the new moon. They also guide goddess Lakshmi to their houses. Families pray to Lakshmi for wealth and place all their jewelry in front of the goddess. At night, they wear new clothes and make and eat special food. "We invite family and friends to celebrate and perform pujas (offerings to God) [with us]," says Nisha Singh, who also hails from North India, "and we exchange gifts with them."

In Mid-Western India, in the State of Maharashtra, Deepavali is celebrated for five days. On the first day, Narakachatur Dashi is celebrated and people wake up very early and take on oil bath. Then they light a firecracker to start off the festivities. On the second day Maharastrians perform a Lakshmi puja, offerings made to the goddess Lakshmi. Families decorate silver or copper pots with jewelry and money and pray to get more next year. On the third day they celebrate Padava. Bhaubis, or Brother's Day, is celebrated on the fourth day, Older Sister's day is on the fifth day, and the sixth day is Mother's Day. "The seventh day, Pandav Panchni, marks the end of Diwali because it is the day in which the Pandavas [from the Mahabharata] were liberated," says Mamata Deshpande. "On this day gifts are exchanged and son-in-laws are given very special gifts."

Contrary to a common misconception, Deepavali does not mark the starting of a New Year for all Hindus. It is only in the state Gujarat, in Western India, that it marks the beginning of a New Year. The festival starts thirteen days before the new moon. During Deepavali, Gujaratis perform a dhan (money) puja (offering) to goddess Lakshmi. In addition to the puja, they wash coins with milk and sing songs in praise of the goddess. Traditionally, they try not to spend any money on that day. This signifies that they will not spend as much money for the rest of the year. They also make food and sweets. "The most important part of Diwali is the food," jokes Kalindi Oza who comes from Gujarat. "We make vada (a savory donut) or anything fried." Kajal or kohl is also made for the eyes by putting a dish through the flame in a lamp.

Oza and other Indians living here fondly remember the wonderful firecrackers that were an important part of the festivities in India. Of course, firecrackers are illegal in Fremont, so such pleasure is definitely out of the question. Nevertheless, people enjoy all the abundant activity tied to the festival. "I love it, I really enjoy Diwali," says Oza. On Diwali day, the new moon or the fifteenth day, Gujaratis perform chopda (books) puja (offering). This marks the beginning of a New Year for businesses. At this time, old business accounts are settled and new books are opened. The books are worshipped in a special ceremony and participants are encouraged to remove anger, hate, and jealousy from their lives. People also light lamps outside their houses for five days, and visit each other and elders give money to their relatives.

It is a Gujarati tradition to greet people by saying "Saal Mubaarak", which is Urdu for Happy New Year. Festivities begin to slow down on the second day after bheej, which is the crescent moon. Bhai bheej is the day on which the sister invites her brother to her home and they spend time together. On the 5th day (pancham) people start something new or buy something new for good luck and this brings an official end to the Deepavali celebrations.

In the eastern state of West Bengal, the goddess Kali is worshipped during Deepavali. The Goddess epitomizes shakti or strength and is worshipped as the protector from evil. People clean their houses, light them up with candles and jubilantly burn firecrackers through the night. Here two days after Kali Puja, Brother's Day, Bhai Phonta or Bhatri Dvitiya is celebrated. Sisters dip their little fingers into kajol, a mixture of ghee, rice-paste and almond paste, and put a mark on their brothers' forehead. "We pray for a long life for our brothers on Bhai Phonta,' says Ellora Sengupta.

In the South, Deepavali is a single day celebration. People clean up their houses, put water in the gutter, and take out all the cobwebs. The doorsteps are adorned with kolums, which are patterns made of wet or dry rice flour. On Deepavali day they wake up early, take an oil bath, eat fried snacks and sweets, and (even the poor people find a way to) wear new clothes. They set off firecrackers to signify the demise of the evil Narakasura. "We go to our relatives' houses and everybody gives each other small gifts," says Rema Raj, who is from South India.

On October 5th, 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a resolution "recognizing the historical and cultural significance of the Hindu festival of Diwali." "Diwali is an important day for Indian Americans and Indians around the world and I am proud to be the sponsor of this resolution," said Representative Joseph Crowley. The resolution defines Diwali as a variation of the Sanskrit word Deepavali, referring to the rows of earthen lamps celebrants place around their homes and that Hindus believe that the light from these lamps symbolizes illumination within the individual that overwhelms ignorance, represented by darkness.

The resolution also explains the importance of the day to Sikhs and Jains. Sikhs celebrate the release of the Sixth Guru, Hargobind, from captivity by the Mughal Emperor Jehangir and Jains commemorate Diwali as the day Lord Mahavira, the last of the Tirthankaras, attained Nirvana, or liberation, after his death in 527 B.C.

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