Deepavali or Diwali which literally means an arrangement of lights is a popular Hindu festival that is celebrated in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore as well as in other parts of the world where Hindu communities abound. The festival is celebrated on different dates every year in the Gregorian calendar because it is observed according to the Hindu calendar. It typically occurs in between the months of October and November.

It is arguably, the most important festival for Hindus and though in most countries, the festival is marked by a public holiday, traditional celebrations take place across a period of 5 days, with each day associated with significant ‘pujas’ or rituals and the third or middle day being the most important.

The most vivid and instantly recognizable aspect of the festival is the lighting of ‘diyas’ or traditional lamps which are small and shallow clay vessels containing ghee or oil dipped with cotton wicks which burns. Of course, in the interests of safety and convenience not to mention due to modern influences, electric lamps or festoons of bulbs are draped across houses and temples to mark the occasion in many countries. Fireworks, which were also traditionally a part of the festive celebrations, is also observed in some parts of the world though this practice is slowly declining due to a growing environmental awareness about the safety and pollution issues associated with it.

Light as a symbol of righteousness

In the Hindu tradition, light is an important metaphor and Diwali or the ‘festival of lights’ heralds the triumph of good over evil, where good is symbolized by light and evil by darkness. On a deeper, philosophical level, it is also an invocation to each individual to search for and find the light or enlightenment within each individual and to banish dark or foreboding thoughts, feelings and desires.

The lights or the lamps are also lit and displayed at the entrance or gateways to residences, institutions, temples and commercial establishments to welcome prosperity into these places and happiness into the hearts of the people.

There is a varied collection of mythical stories that commemorate the celebrations depending on where they are celebrated. Even across the length and breadth of India, the mythology associated with the festival slightly differs from region to region. Among the most popular mythologies that are celebrated and enacted dramatically during the festival include the return of King Rama, an avatar of the God Vishnu from a 14-year exile; the killing of Narakasura, a tyrant king by Krishna, another avatar of the God Vishnu; and worship of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and Ganesha, the god of auspicious beginnings and the remover of obstacles.

Get dazzled by bright lights, colourful clothes and sweet dishes

Across the world, people celebrate Diwali or Deepavali by dressing in new clothes, lighting lamps in the doorways and windows of their houses to propitiously welcome the spirit of the gods or goodness into their homes and by indulging in sweet dishes and sugar-coated dry fruits to savour the blessings they have received in life.

It is customary to hang decorative lanterns from the top of doorways and gateways and consecrate the ground in front of the main door or gate with colourful and intricate patterns made using coloured powder called ‘Rangoli.’ In modern and secular societies, these traditional expressions have been modified so as not to be intrusive and are sometimes discreetly observed within the residences.

Another customary practice is to purchase and wear new clothes on the occasion to symbolize prosperity and new beginnings. It is also an occasion to forgive and forget actions and misgivings from the past and welcome the future with hope, compassion and understanding. The exchange of gifts consisting of traditional sweet dishes among family members and friends symbolizes the openhearted willingness of the people participating in the festival to embrace and help each other.

The pyrotechnic display of fireworks is a significant part of the celebration in many parts of India. Fireworks are not only displayed in temples and institutions but also they are partaken on a smaller scale in residences and communities. There are a variety of smaller firecrackers which are made so that they can be used even by children though the practice is on the decline due to a growing social awareness about safety issues and its environmental impact in terms of sound and air pollution.

For many Hindus, Diwali is more than a mere festival because it signifies a time for renewal and letting go of the past and welcoming the future with hope. Diwali is arguably the most important event that culturally represents centuries-old traditions that have evolved, endured and continues to hold sway over thousands of people.