Diwali, Deepavali or Dipavali is the Hindu festival of lights, which is celebrated every autumn in the northern hemisphere.(spring in southern hemisphere) This year, it will be Wednesday, November 7th.

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One of the most popular festivals of Hinduism, Diwali symbolizes the spiritual “victory of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance” During the celebration, temples, homes, shops and office buildings are brightly illuminated. The preparations, and rituals, for the festival typically last five days, with the climax occurring on the third day coinciding with the darkest night of the Hindu Lunisolar month Kartika. In the Gregorian Calendar , the festival generally falls between mid-October and mid-November.

In the lead up to Diwali, celebrants will prepare by cleaning, renovating and decorating   their homes and offices. During the climax, revellers adorn themselves in their finest clothes, illuminate the interior and exterior of their homes with diyas,  offer puja  to Lakshmi– the goddess of prosperity and wealth, light fireworks, partake in family feasts, where mithai and gifts are shared. Diwali is also a major cultural event for the Hindu and Jain diaspora from the Indian subcontinent.

The five day festival originated in the Indian subcontinent  and is mentioned in early Sanskrit texts. The names of the festive days of Diwali, as well as the rituals, vary by region. Diwali is usually celebrated eighteen days after the  Dussehra festival with Dhanteras, or the regional equivalent, marking the first day of the festival when celebrants prepare by cleaning their homes and laying floor decorations, such as rangoli  The second day is Choti Diwali, or equivalent in north India, while for Hindus in the south of India it is Diwali proper. Western, central, eastern and northern Indian communities observe Diwali on the third day and the darkest night of the traditional month. In some parts of India, the day after Diwali is marked with the Goverdhan Puja and Diwali Padva, which is dedicated to the relationship between wife and husband. Some Hindu communities mark the last day as Bhai Dooj   which is dedicated to the bond between sister and brother,  while other Hindu and Sikh craftsmen communities mark this day as Vishwakarma Puja and observe it by performing maintenance in their work spaces and offering prayers.

Some other faiths in India also celebrate their respective festivals alongside Diwali. The Jains observe their own Diwali, which marks the final liberation of Mahavira, the Sikhs celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas to mark the release of Guru Hargobind from a Mughal Empire prison, while Newar Buddhists, unlike other Buddhists, celebrate Diwali by worshiping Lakshmi.The festival of Diwali is an official holiday in Fiji,Guyana, India, Malaysia (except Sarawak), Mauritius, Myanmar,  Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The festival is an annual homecoming and bonding period not only for families, but also for communities and associations, particularly those in urban areas,  which will organize activities , events and gatherings. Many towns organize community parades and fairs with parades or music and dance performances in parks. Some Hindus, Jains and Sikhs will send Diwali greeting cards to family near and far during the festive season, occasionally with boxes of Indian confectionery.

Diwali is a post-harvest festival celebrating the bounty following the arrival of the monsoon in the subcontinent. Depending on the region, celebrations include prayers before one or more Hindu deities, the most common being Lakshmi.  According to David Kinsley, an Indologist and scholar of Indian religious traditions particularly in relation to goddess worship, Lakshmi symbolizes three virtues: wealth and prosperity, fertility and abundant crops, as well as good fortune.  Merchants seek Lakshmi’s blessings in their ventures and will ritually close their accounting year during Diwali.  Fertility motifs appear in agricultural offerings brought before Lakshmi by farming families, who give thanks for the recent harvests and seek her blessings for prosperous future crops.  A symbolic piece of traditional fertilizer, a dried piece of cow dung, is included in the ensemble in Odisha and Deccan region villages, an agricultural motif according to Kinsley. Another aspect of the festival is remembering the ancestors.

Rituals and preparations for Diwali begin days or weeks in advance, typically after the festival of Dusshera that precedes Diwali by about 20 days. The festival formally begins two days before the night of Diwali, and ends two days thereafter. Each day has the following rituals and significance:

Dhanteras (Day 1)

Dhanteras, derived from Dhan meaning wealth and teras meaning thirteenth, marks the thirteenth day of the dark fortnight of Kartik and the beginning of Diwali.  On this day, many Hindu’s clean their homes and business premises. They install diyas, small earthen oil-filled lamps that they light up for the next five days, near Lakshmi and Ganesha iconography.  Women and children decorate doorways within homes and offices with rangoli, colorful designs made from rice flour, flower petals and colored sand, while the boys and men decorate the roofs and walls of family homes, markets and temples.  The day also marks a major shopping day to purchase new utensils, home equipment, jewelry , firecrackers and other items.  On the evening of Dhanteras, families offer prayers to Lakshmi and Ganesha, and lay offerings of puffed rice, candy toys, rice cakes and batashas (hollow sugar cakes).

According to Tracy Pintchman, Dhanteras is a symbol of annual renewal, cleansing and an auspicious beginning for the next year.  The term “Dhan” for this day also alludes to the Ayurvedic icon Dhanvantari, the god of health and healing, who is believed to have emerged from the “churning of cosmic ocean” on the same day as Lakshmi. Some communities, particularly those active in Ayurvedic and health-related professions, pray or perform havan rituals to Dhanvantari on Dhanteras.

Choti Diwali, Naraka Chaturdasi (Day 2)

Choti Diwali, also known as Naraka Chaturdasi, is the second day of festivities coinciding with the fourteenth day of the second fortnight of the lunar month. The term “choti” means little, while “Naraka” means hell and “Chaturdasi” means “fourteenth”. The day and its rituals are interpreted as ways to liberate any souls from their suffering in “Naraka”, or hell, as well as a reminder of spiritual auspiciousness. For some Hindus, it is a day to pray for the peace to the manes, or deified souls of one’s ancestors and light their way for their journeys in the cyclic afterlife. A mythological interpretation of this festive day is the destruction of the asura (demon) Narakasura by Krishna, a victory that frees 16,000 imprisoned princesses kidnapped by Narakasura.

Naraka Chaturdasi is also a major day for purchasing festive foods, particularly sweets. A variety of sweets are prepared using flour, semolina, rice, chickpea flour, dry fruit pieces powders or paste, milk solids (mawa or khoya) and clarified butter (ghee). According to Goldstein, these are then shaped into various forms, such as laddus, barfis, halvah, kachoris, shrikhand and sandesh, rolled and stuffed delicacies, such as maladu, susiyam, pottukadalai. Sometimes these are wrapped with edible silver foil (vark). Confectioners and shops create Diwali-themed decorative displays, selling these in large quantities, which are stocked for home celebrations to welcome guests and as gifts.  Families also prepare homemade delicacies for the main Diwali day.  Choti Diwali is also a day for visiting friends, business associates and relatives, and exchanging gifts.

This day is commonly celebrated as Diwali in Tamil Nadu, Goa and Karnataka. . Some South Indian Hindus receive an oil massage and then take a ritual bath. Many visit their favorite Hindu temple.

Diwali, Lakshmi Puja (Day 3)

The third day is the height of the festival, and coincides with the last day of the dark fortnight of the lunar month. This is the day when Hindu, Jain and Sikh temples and homes are aglow with lights, thereby making it the “festival of lights”. The youngest members in the family visit their elders, such as grandparents and other senior members of the community, on this day. Small business owners give gifts or special bonus payments to their employees between Dhanteras and Diwali. Shops either do not open or close early on this day allowing employees to enjoy family time. Shopkeepers and small operations perform puja rituals in their office premises. Unlike some other festivals, the Hindu typically do not fast on Diwali, rather they feast and share the bounties of the season at their workplaces, community centers, temples and homes.

As the evening approaches, celebrants will wear new clothes or their best outfits, teenage girls and women in particular wear saris and jewelry. At dusk, family members gather for the Lakshmi puja, although prayers will also be offered to other deities, such as Ganesha, Saraswati, Rama, Lakshmana, Sita, Hanuman, or Kubera. The lamps from the puja ceremony are then used to light more earthenware lamps , which are placed in rows along the parapets of temples and houses,  while some diyas are set adrift on rivers and streams. After the puja, people go outside and celebrate by lighting up patakhe (fireworks) together, and then share a family feast and mithai (sweets, desserts).

The puja and rituals in the Bengali Hindu community focus on Kali, the goddess of war, instead of Lakshmi. According to Rachel Fell McDermott, a scholar of South Asian, particular Bengali, studies, in Bengal during Navaratri (Dussehra elsewhere in India) the Durga puja is the main focus, although in the eastern and north eastern states the two are synonymous, but on Diwali the focus is on the puja dedicated to Kali. These two festivals likely developed in tandem over their recent histories, states McDermott. Textual evidence suggests that Bengali Hindus worshiped Lakshmi before the colonial era, and that the Kali puja is a more recent phenomenon.  Contemporary Bengali celebrations mirror those found elsewhere, with teenage boys playing with fireworks and the sharing of festive food with but with the Shakti goddess Kali as the focus. 

On the night of Diwali, rituals across much of India are dedicated to Lakshmi to welcome her into their cleaned homes and bring prosperity and happiness for the coming year. While the cleaning, or painting, of the home is in part for goddess Lakshmi, it also signifies the ritual “reenactment of the cleansing, purifying action of the monsoon rains” that would have concluded in most of the Indian subcontinent. Vaishnava families recite Hindu legends of the victory of good over evil and the return of hope after despair on Diwali night, where the main characters may include Rama, Krishna, Vamana or one of the avatars of Vishnu, the divine husband of Lakshmi.  At dusk, lamps placed earlier in the inside and outside of the home are lit up to welcome Lakshmi. Family members light up firecrackers, which some interpret as a way to ward off all evil spirits and the inauspicious, as well as add to the festive mood.  According to Pintchman, who quotes Raghavan, this ritual may also be linked to the tradition in some communities of paying respect to ancestors. Earlier in the season’s fortnight, some welcome the souls of their to join the family for the festivities with the Mahalaya. The Diwali night’s lights and firecrackers, in this interpretation, represent a celebratory and symbolic farewell to the departed ancestral souls.

The celebrations and rituals of the Jains and the Sikhs are similar to those of the Hindus where social and community bonds are renewed. Major temples and homes are decorated with lights, festive foods shared with all, friends and relatives remembered and visited with gifts.

Annakut, Padwa, Govardhan puja (Day 4)

The day after Diwali is the first day of the bright fortnight of the luni-solar calendar. It is regionally called as Annakut (heap of grain), Padwa, Goverdhan puja, Bali Pratipada, Bali Padyani, Kartik Shukla Pratipada and other names. According to one tradition, the day is associated with the story of Bali’s defeat at the hands of Vishnu.  In another interpretation, it is thought to reference the legend of Parvati and her husband Shiva playing a game of dyuta (dice) on a board of twelve squares and thirty pieces, Parvati wins. Shiva surrenders his shirt and adornments to her, rendering him naked. According to Handelman and Shulman, as quoted by Pintchman, this legend is a Hindu metaphor for the cosmic process for creation and dissolution of the world through the masculine destructive power, as represented by Shiva, and the feminine procreative power, represented by Parvati, where twelve reflects the number of months in the cyclic year, while thirty are the number of days in its lunisolar month.

This day ritually celebrates the bond between the wife and husband, and in some Hindu communities, husbands will celebrate this with gifts to their wives. In other regions, parents invite a newly married daughter, or son, together with their spouses to a festive meal and give them gifts.

In some rural communities of the north, west and central regions, the fourth day is celebrated as Govardhan puja, honouring the legend of the Hindu god Krishna saving the cowherd and farming communities from incessant rains and floods triggered by Indra’s anger, which he accomplished by lifting the Govardhan mountain. This legend is remembered through the ritual of building small mountain-like miniatures from cow dung.  According to Kinsley, the ritual use of cow dung, a common fertilizer, is an agricultural motif and a celebration of its significance to annual crop cycles.

The agricultural symbolism is also observed on this day by many Hindus as Annakut, literally “mountain of food”. Communities prepare over one hundred dishes from a variety of ingredients, which is then dedicated to Krishna before shared among the community. Hindu temples on this day prepare and present “mountains of sweets” to the faithful who have gathered for darshan (visit)  In Gujarat, Annakut is the first day of the new year and celebrated through the purchase of essentials, or sabras (literally, “good things in life”), such as salt, offering prayers to Krishna and visiting temples.

Bhai Duj, Bhaiya Dooj (Day 5)

The last day of the festival is called Bhai duj (literally “brother’s day”) or Bhai tilak. It celebrates the sister-brother bond, similar in spirit to Raksha Bandhan but it is the brother that travels to meet the sister and her family. This festive day is interpreted by some to symbolize Yama’s sister Yamuna welcoming Yama with a tilaka, while others interpret it as the arrival of Krishna at his sister’s, Subhadra, place after defeating Narakasura. Subhadra welcomes him with a tilaka on his forehead.

The day celebrates the sibling bond between brother and sister. On this day the womenfolk of the family gather, perform a puja with prayers for the well being of their brothers, then return to a ritual of feeding their brothers with their hands and receiving gifts. According to Pintchman, in some Hindu traditions the women recite tales where sisters protect their brothers from enemies that seek to cause him either bodily or spiritual harm.  In historic times, this was a day in autumn when brothers would travel to meet their sisters, or invite their sister’s family to their village to celebrate their sister-brother bond with the bounty of seasonal harvests.

The artisan Hindu and Sikh community celebrates the fourth day as the Vishwakarma puja day.  Vishwakarma is the presiding Hindu deity for those in architecture, building, manufacturing, textile work and crafts trades. The looms, tools of trade, machines and workplaces are cleaned and  prayers offered to these livelihood means.

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