Diwali—A Cultural Phenomenon that Defines a Nation

In India, there is nothing more synonymous with the second half of the year than Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights.

Being a country where every event is given a grand celebration, especially the birth and conquests of the mighty Indian deities, Diwali holds a very special place. The importance of bringing in these 4-5 days of festivities with family and friends is so significant that Indians around the world plan their work leaves well in advance to make sure that they are home. Truly symbolizing a secular nation, this festival is recognized by people of different religions and celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists with equal pomp. It is the perfect mélange of traditions followed over the years with local customs native to certain regions that add to the flavor of the festivities. Homes are thoroughly cleaned (even carrying a special title to it—Diwali Cleaning), sweets are freshly prepared, and new clothes are purchased to ring in the celebrations.

Where it all Began—The Legends and Traditions

Before we set into what Diwali is today, let’s understand where the celebrations first began. In its truest essence, Diwali marks the victory of good over evil. There are several legends that are believed to be the origin of this festival, each unique to a different region of the country. The most widely known story, and one celebrated in northern India, is of Lord Ram’s triumphant return to his kingdom in Ayodhya after 14 years of exile. With the help of Lord Hanuman and Lord Laxman, he heroically rescued his wife Sita after she was kidnapped by Lord Ravana. He was greeted by a row of diyas (clay oil lamps) and this is a tradition followed to this very day where every house lights diyas to commemorate this special occasion.

In Southern India, however, Diwali is the celebration of Lord Krishna’s victory over the demon Narakasura. Another legendary belief is that the festival celebrates the marriage of Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, and Lord Vishnu, the sustainer of the universe. However, Goddess Lakshmi is an important part of Diwali for more reasons than one. The festival coincided with the last harvest before winter, so farmers would pray to the Goddess of Wealth for good fortune. Today, the first day of the festival is called Dhanteras, which literally means celebrating your wealth. The third day is also known as Lakshmi Puja, where the Goddess is worshipped in homes.

Not just a Hindu Festival

Even the Sikhs, Jains and Buddhist, the minority religions in India, have their own Diwali stories. The Sikhs celebrate the release of their guru, Hargobind, after 12 years of imprisonment by the Mughal emperor Jahangir, while the Jains observe Diwali as the day Lord Mahavir achieved nirvana. Buddhists celebrate it as the day Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism from Hinduism. Though the Muslims and Christians do not celebrate within their community, they are more than happy to be a part of all the festivities around them. It is truly a secular festival like no other.

What Diwali Means to Me

Though I have grown up to be agnostic, even I find it difficult to escape the infectious spirit of Diwali. Throughout my childhood, the festival meant three primary things: holidays, new clothes and bursting firecrackers with friends in the neighborhood. The mothers ensured our pockets were stocked with sweet treats to share with friends and our fathers stayed alert at a comfortable distance to make sure we were careful with matchsticks.

Today, now that I have been promoted to the ranks of adulthood, things are a little different but not boring by any standard. The buildup to the festivities begins with doing our own version of “spring cleaning”. Once the house is spick and span, it is given a Diwali makeover, with the brightest string lights and lanterns adorning different rooms. New clothes are unfolded and sweets are made in bulk to be distributed to neighbors and friends. The rangoli, a traditional mandala made with colored rice, colored sand, quartz powder or flower petals, is laid out in front of the door for visitors and passersby’s to admire. Very soon, the first day of Diwali arrives and laughter fills the air. Families come together and special meals are set on the table. At night, diyas are lit and children are out of the streets making merry while happily sporting traditional attires that they otherwise are averse to wearing. Four days go by in a flash, but not without leaving us with fond memories and full bellies.

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