The celebration of Diwali in India is a tradition that dates back to ancient times. I am excited to have Karilyn from No Back Home sharing her insight about this Festival of Lights that takes place throughout India on different dates depending on the the lunar calendar. This is part of our Holiday Celebrations Around the World series and honestly, it is a holiday I never knew anything about. Karilyn used to live in India and after reading this, she has convinced me to experience this festival (and India) first hand.
What is Diwali?
One of our favorite festivals during our time in India was Diwali, the Festival of Lights, or known in Sanskrit as Deepavali. The festival gets its name from the row (avali) of clay lamps (or deepa) that are lit outside of people’s homes to symbolize the inner light that protects them from spiritual darkness.
Diwali is one of India’s most important celebrations. Even though it is primarily a Hindu holiday, in India people from all religions participate to some extent. It is as important to Hindus as Christmas is to Christians.
In simple terms, the festival of lights celebrates the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil as well as signifying the beginning of a new year. Diwali is celebrated for 3 to 5 days every year between the middle of October to the middle of November based on the Hindu lunar calendar. This year, the main day of celebrations will take place on Sunday, October 27th.
Originally, Diwali was simply a harvest festival that marked the last harvest of the year before winter. During the festival, people would seek the blessing of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, as they closed their accounts and prayed for a new year of financial success. Today, this practice continues in a modern sense with businesses marking the day after Diwali as the first day of the new financial year. For outsiders (aka non-Indian, non-Hindus) like ourselves, it very much felt like a wonderful combination of Christmas and New Year.
How is it Diwali celebrated?
Traditionally, each day of the three to five day festival had one particular focus: worship to Lakshmi, cleaning and decorating the home, fireworks and festive family gatherings. However, these days, families spend several days in advance cleaning and decorating their homes in preparation for Diwali, rather than doing it just on the one prescribed day. They also spend the weeks leading up to the festival shopping for new clothes to wear to celebrations as well as for gifts for families and friends. Business have also gotten into the action by setting up elaborate fairy light displays promoting sales during the weeks leading up to Diwali.
Regardless of how a family celebrates Diwali, each celebration will include a few main components. These are: a puja (prayer) to Lakshmi, purchasing of gold or other jewelry, purchasing of new clothes and gifts for friends and family, decoration of the house with diyas (small clay oil lights) and colorful rangoli designs made out of color powder and of course big feasts of vegetarian food with delicious sweets.
This festival is also marked by huge firework displays, but not choreographed professional displays by one particular place or person. Instead it is a free for all, with children sticking to sparklers while everyone else shoots off the biggest fireworks they can afford. In major cities like Mumbai, the nights are lit up with fireworks shooting across the sky from every direction, culminating on the 3rd night of Diwali with pure insanity. For the first timer, it sounds much like what we envision a war zone to be like. The light shows do not end until every last firework has been exploded!
Similarly to how Christians use the Christmas holiday season to gather with friends and family over a meal, Diwali is also a time for families to gather. Families will gather for a feast, to exchange gifts and to watch (or do their own) fireworks. Unlike Christmas, there is not set meal that every family would eat. Rather each family has their own favorites that they make each year. The one constant however is the presence of sweets. No Indian festival would be complete without ladoos (sweet balls of chickpea flour, almonds and pistachios), kheer or other traditional sweets to offer to guests as well as to include in their puja offerings.
How can you experience Diwali in India?
If you are in India, make your way to a large city where your senses will go into overdrive as you experience the colors, sounds and lights associated with this fantastical holiday. If you want a more traditional feel, head to smaller towns and into a local’s home where you can see up close the puja dedicated to Lakshmi and the feast awaiting friends and family.
If you are not in India, many cities with large Indian populations will host melas (parties or festivals) with live music, food and fireworks where you can join in the festivities. You can also celebrate at home by decorating your house in fairy lights, with votive candles and with colorful rangoli designs. Don’t forget to add in delicious Indian food, Bollywood tunes and traditional Indian clothes if you have them! Happy Diwali!
About the author: Karilyn, founder of No Back Home, writes about family adventures at home in Southern California and around the world. Karilyn and her family enjoy the outdoors, traveling and seeking out the beauty wherever they find themselves.