‘Deepawali’ or ‘Diwali’ is the biggest and the brightest of all Hindu festivals. It’s the festival of lights (deep = light and avali = a row i.e., a row of lights) that’s marked by four days of celebration, which literally illumines the country with its brilliance, and dazzles all with its joy. Each of the four days in the festival of Diwali is separated by a different tradition, but what remains true and constant is the celebration of life, its enjoyment and goodness.
Diwali in Mythology
Historically, the origin of Diwali can be traced back to ancient India, when it was probably an important harvest festival. However, there are various legends pointing to the origin of Diwali or ‘Deepawali.’ Some believe it to be the celebration of the marriage of Lakshmi with Lord Vishnu. Whereas in Bengal the festival is dedicated to the worship of Mother Kali, the dark goddess of strength. Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed God, the symbol of auspiciousness and wisdom, is also worshiped in most Hindu homes on this day. In Jainism, Deepawali has an added significance to the great event of Lord Mahavira attaining the eternal bliss of nirvana. Diwali also commemorates the return of Lord Rama along with Sita and Lakshman from his fourteen year long exile and vanquishing the demon-king Ravana. In joyous celebration of the return of their king, the people of Ayodhya, the Capital of Rama, illuminated the kingdom with earthen diyas (oil lamps) and burst crackers.
Celebrations Across India
The markets of Gujarat liven up almost a whole month in advance for Diwali shoppers; from jewelry; clothes; sweets; gift articles; shoes etc. to fire crackers; everything is in demand and plentiful in supply. It’s a mad frenzy of shopping everywhere in the days leading up to the festival.
Gujaratis start celebrations on the night before Diwali by creating designs – usually depicting nature or the gods – from natural powder colours in verandas. These are called “rangoli” and are supposed to welcome Goddess Lakshmi to the house. In a way they are a means of competition and pride amongst their creators. Also, small footprints are drawn with rice flour and vermilion powder all over the houses.
On Diwali day the clothes worn are usually Jhabba (kurta)-dhotis or Jhabba-legengas for the men, while the women are in saris. A visit to the temple is customary. The day is spent preparing food and sweets. Shops are open, but business comes to a halt on Dhanteras, two days before Diwali, and doesn’t resume until Labh Pancham, the fifth day of the newyear. For traders and businessmen, this is the time for a vacation. Diwali evening is celebrated by lighting up streets and markets, and bursting crackers.
In Tamil Nadu Diwali commemorates the death of Narakasura at the hands of Lord Sri Krishna. Typical Deepawali celebrations begin with waking up early in the morning, before sun rise, followed by an oil-bath. The bathing tradition involves extensive massaging of warm til-oil containing pepper corns, betel leaves. New clothes are typically worn as a part of celebrations. After the bath, a home-made medicine known as “Deepawali Lehiyam” is consumed, which is supposed to aid in smoothening digestive problems that may ensue due to feasting that occurs later in the day.
Diwali is celebrated with great joy in Odisha. Rows of oil lamps, candles adorn the thresholds of all houses. Tarpanam is done in the morning of Diwali. A rangoli(Muruja) of a sailboat is made on the ground. The boat has seven chambers in north, ten chambers in east, and twelve chamber in south. The east chambers are meant for gods, north chambers for seer or Rishi and south chambers for manes and forefathers. Over the drawing of each different chamber several items are kept – cotton, mustard, salt, asparagus root, turmeric, sweets, cakes and a wild creeper. Over the central chamber are the offerings meant for prasad. Perched over the prasad is a jute stem with a cloth-wick tied around the edge. It is lit at the beginning of the puja.
Dev Deepawali is celebrated on the 15th day after Diwali, on Kartik Purnima. The festival is celebrated as a welcome to the Gods and Goddesses on Earth on the banks of the Holy Ganges. The Uttar Pradesh Tourism Department organizes a four day festival and showcases the heritage and culture of Varanasi. The day is celebrated with offering prayers to the Holy Ganges. The prayers are offered by chanting vedic scriptures, hymns and lighting big Diyas (clay pots). The Ganges looks ablaze with so many diyas lit on its banks. One can enjoy a breathtaking view as thousands of diyas flicker along the banks.
Diwali in Nepal
Nepal is the only Hindu country in the world and thus it celebrates this festival with great pomp. Though the play of colours takes place only on the last day, a ceremonial pole called, ‘chir’ is installed on the first day. Chir is a bamboo pole fringed with strips of cloths representing good luck charms. As the pole is put up in the street at Basantapur, the festivities and worship commences for the week. At the end of the festivities the chir is taken to a bonfire.
There is a popular legend behind the installation of chir. The story is again about the mischievous nature of Krishna who just loved to play pranks with the milkmaids or gopis. Playful as he was, it is said that once he seduced all the local girls with his dashing good looks; he then danced with them all and when they were fully engrossed in him, then he doused them in coloured water and stole all their clothes while they were bathing in the water of the river Yamuna. Naughty Krishna then hung their clothes on a tree to bug them. Chir symbolizes that very tree.
The night before the final day, huge bonfires are lit at major crossroads in towns and cities and effigies of the demon Holika are burned to symbolize the triumph of good over evil.