Derived from the word ‘Deepavali’, Diwali is popularly known as the festival of light celebrated by Indians across the world.
Although the significance of the festival may differ from one region to another, lighting of earthen lamps (or use colourful electrical illuminations in modern times) at temples and homes is the common element.
While in north India, Diwali is said to be observed to mark the triumphant return of Rama to Ayodhya (after the conclusion of his exile and victory over Ravana), states in south India observe it as the slaying of demon Naraka in the hands of Krishna and his consort Satyabhama.
Bengal celebrates it by welcoming goddess Kali alongwith many interesting rituals - in parts of old Kolkata, you will find households flying handmade paper lanterns (image below by Arindam Chowdhury / Shutterstock).
Many relate the day with the appearance of Goddess Lakshmi during the Samudra Manthan (churning of the ocean of milk) which took place between the gods and demons; hence a few communities observe the day as the start of the New Year.
Usually, the observation of Diwali begins with the observation of Dhanteras on the 13th day of the dark fortnight when people buy gold or silver as part of an auspicious ritual and concludes with the observation of Bhai Dooj or Bhai Phota (as it is known in Bengal), when sisters offer prayers for their brothers’ health and organise feasts for them).
Different communities hold several rituals throughout the five days. In northern and southern parts of the countries, elaborate ‘rangoli’ (designs made by coloured powder) is created to decorate entrances and open spaces in and around homes.
In the weeks running up to Diwali, people clean homes, prepare traditional sweets and go on a shopping spree.
Interestingly, Diwali is not only observed by Hindus but by Sikhs and Jains as well. Sikhs observe the day when Mughal emperor Jahangir released Guru Hargovind. To Jains, it is the day when Mahavir attained Nirvana.
Here’s how the festival of lights is celebrated across seven different regions in the country.
Places such as Ayodhya and Varanasi draw a lot of people during Diwali. This year, according to reports, Ayodhya will celebrate Deepotsav by lighting up 12 lakh earthen lamps, including nine lakhs lit on the banks of the Saryu River. Staging of Ram Lila programmes, laser show and fireworks will also be organised. In Varanasi too there will be lamp offering on the banks of the Ganga (see image above by Davide Gandolfi / Shutterstock), river worship through Ganga Arati, etc. And if you cannot attend the festival now, you may plan to attend Dev Deepavali of Varanasi later in the month.
In Punjab, Diwali marks the advent of winter. Farmers start preparing for the farming season and sow the first batch of seeds. Sikhs observe ‘Bandi Chhor Diwas’ that falls on the same day. The festival commemorates the day of liberation. The Golden Temple is lit up (image above by Prabhijit S. Kalsi / Shutterstock) with thousands of earthen lamps and fireworks and a ‘langar’ (free kitchen) caters to those who come to offer their prayers at the sacred site.
In West Bengal, Diwali coincides with Kali Puja. The day before, Bengalis will eat the ‘choddo shaak’ – a seasonal health remedy which consists of a mix of 14 leafy vegetables and medicinal plants – and light 14 earthen lamps in honour of the ancestors.
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Usually Kali Puja is held at night. Elaborate celebrations take place at all the Kali temples, while in many homes Lakshmi Puja is also observed.
The evening is usually devoted to bursting firecrackers (but this year it is in a bind owing to protests from environmentalists). Both in West Bengal and Odisha, you can go pandal hopping – visiting the marquees housing idols of Goddess Kali in the various neighbourhoods.
For the Gujarati community, Diwali marks the end of the traditiona year. Elaborate preparations are made for holding Lakshmi Puja. On the day of Labh Pancham (the fifth day after Diwali), the celebration concludes with the restarting of business for the New Year. There are many rituals performed at homes pertaining to Diwali and to ward off the evil eye.
Diwali celebrations in Maharashtra begins with Vasu Baras. Here Dhanteras is celebrated in the form of dhantrayodashi, while Chhoti Diwali takes the form of Narak Chaturdashi. On the day of the festival, Maharashtrians pray to goddess Lakshmi and also observe Diwali Cha Padva which celebrates the bond of marriage. The festivities come to an end with Bhaav Bij and they welcome the wedding season with Tulsi Vivah.
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You will find houses decorated with colourful lanterns called kandeels. People make them at home or buy them in markets. It's a treat walking down streets in Mumbai and seeing houses decked up in different kandeel designs (image above by Ramniklal Modi / Shutterstock).
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Probably no other state celebrates Narak Chaturdashi like Goa does. Effigies of Narkasur are paraded through the streets before being burnt. This marks the commencement of the festival of light and end of evil and darkness.
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The work of making the effigies begin weeks ahead of the main festival (image above by knyazevfoto / Shutterstock) - people’s imaginations running wild to give the most gruesome, or sometimes playful, looks to the demon. Competitions to award the most imaginatively designed effigy are also common.
Celebrations for Diwali (also Deepavali) in the southern states of India begins the day before. Narak Chaturdashi (that's equivalent to Chhoti DIwali as celebrated in the northern states) is the main day of festival for the southern part of the country. In Tamil Nadu, the day begins with an oil bath before sunrise, and a plethora of rituals are followed during the period. Tamilians light the ‘kuthu vilaku’ (lamp) and offer ‘neivedyam’ to deities. Kolam (with a mixture of rice powder or increasingly white or coloured chalk) is drawn in front of house entrances, and even on streets. They also prepare an Ayurvedic medicine called ‘lehyam’ as an antidote against indigestion people may suffer from after five days of feasting during this time.