Happy Diwali – what’s it all about?

November 4th, 2010 by Stephen Jones Leave a reply »

The traditional festival of Diwali is the biggest event of the year for Hindus and Sikhs.  Some Indian business communities begin the financial year on the first day of Diwali, hoping for prosperity the following year.

Diwali is often referred to as  the Festival of Lights  –  Lights are the most important accessory at this time. Lights represent inner light and supposedly banish the dark and evil spirits. Anything that illuminates can be used, but diyas (oil lamps) are most common. The name Diwali is itself a contraction of the word “Deepavali” (Sanskrit: दीपावली Dīpāvali), which translates into row of lamps

For Sikhs, Diwali is particularly important because it celebrates the release from prison of the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind Ji, (hence also called “Bandi Chorr Devas“), and 52 other princes from the Gwalior Fort in 1619. The Mughal Emperor Jahangir had imprisoned Guru Har Gobind and 52 other Hindu princes fearing the Guru’s growing following and power. The Emperor was asked to release Guru Har Gobind which he agreed to do. However, Guru Har Gobind asked that the Hindu princes be released, too. The Emperor agreed, but said only those who could hold onto his cloak tail would be allowed to leave the prison. This was in order to limit the number of prisoners who could leave. However, Guru Har Gobind had made a cloak with 52 tassels and so each King was able to hold onto one tassel and leave prison. The Sikhs celebrated the return of Guru Har Gobind by lighting the Golden Temple and this tradition continues today.

In Jainism, Diwali marks the attainment of moksha by Mahavira in 527 BC. In Sikhism, Deepavali commemorates the return of Guru Har Gobind Ji to Amritsar after freeing 52 Hindu kings imprisoned in Fort Gwalior by Emperor Jahangir; the people lit candles and diyas to celebrate his return. This is the reason Sikhs also refer to Deepavali as Bandi Chhorh Divas, “the day of release of detainees”. Deepavali is considered a national festival in India and Nepal.

Central to Hindu philosophy is the assertion that there is something beyond the physical body and mind which is pure, infinite, and eternal, called the Atman. Just as we celebrate the birth of our physical being, Diwali is the celebration of this inner light, in particular the knowing of which outshines all darkness (removes all obstacles and dispels all ignorance), awakening the individual to one’s true nature, not as the body, but as the unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality. With the realization of the Atman comes universal compassion, love, and the awareness of the oneness of all things (higher knowledge). This brings Ananda (joy or peace). While the story behind Deepavali and manner of celebration varies from region to region (festive fireworks, worship, lights, sharing of sweets), the essence is the same – to rejoice in the Inner Light (Atman) or the underlying reality of all things (Brahman).

Deepavali marks the end of the harvest season in most of India. Farmers give thanks for the bounty of the year gone by, and pray for a good harvest for the year to come. Traditionally this marked the closing of accounts for businesses dependent on the agrarian cycle, and is the last major celebration before winter. Lakshmi symbolizes wealth and prosperity, and her blessings are invoked for a good year ahead.

There are two legends that associate the worship of Lakshmi on this day. According to the first legend, on this day, Lakshmi emerged from Kshira Sagar, the Ocean of Milk, during the great churning of the oceans, Samudra manthan. The second legend (more popular in western India) relates to the Vamana avatar of the big three Vishnu, the incarnation he assumed to kill the demon king Bali. On this day, Vishnu came back to his abode the Vaikuntha; so those who worship Lakshmi receive the benefit of her benevolent mood, and are blessed with mental, physical and material well-being

Colourful garlands and flowers are a must for any Diwali celebration – they’re used to adorn the body, to decorate doorways and homes and to offer to the gods.

Rangoli (coloured powder and sand) – sprinkled in different patterns and shapes, such as stars, flowers or to simply spell out ‘Happy Diwali’. Dubai’s desert location is handy for this tradition:  drive out to the desert, collect a bucket of sand and add some watered-down food colouring, let it dry in the sun and then get sprinkling.

Sugary sweet treats -  a must for any traditional Diwali celebration. Look out for karanji (baked or fried flour dumplings stuffed with dry coconut), ladoo (aka semolina balls), and rasgulla, a Bengali speciality served with cottage cheese and semolina cooked in syrup. If like me you don’t have a sweet tooth, try the savoury buttery chakli – crisp swirls of dough with a salty, or a chilli flavour.

Deepavali is celebrated for five days according to the lunisolar Hindu Calendar. It begins in late Ashvin (between September and October) and ends in early Kartika (between October and November). The first day is Dhan Teras. The last day is Yama Dvitiya, which signifies the second day of the light half of Kartika. Each day of Deepavali marks one celebration of the six principal stories associated with the festival. All the days except Diwali are named according to their designation in the Hindu calendar

We wish you all a Happy Diwali whatever your religon and will enjoy seeing the lights.

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