The Festival of Lights
The Hindu festival of Diwali or Deepavali (in Sanskrit) which literally means “row of lights” is the most awaited event of the year in India. Five days of festivities, making, distributing and eating sweets, lighting up homes, neighborhoods, towns and cities, Diwali arrives between October to November every year. Across the country, homes, offices and commercial spaces are lit up with diyas and flowers. Houses are filled with the aroma of delightful sweets and savories and there is laughter and joy in the air. The festival, which is celebrated with much fervor and enthusiasm across India, unites people across states and religions. The five-day long festival signifies the victory of good over evil and is a time to introspect and dispel the darkness within us.
The Stories and Legends of Diwali
What makes festivals even more interesting are the fun folklore and mythological tales attached to them. From different parts of India are different versions of Diwali.
The Return of Rama: The most popular belief is to celebrate the return of Lord Rama, Sita and Lakshman to the kingdom of Ayodhya, after 14 years of exile and a victory over Raavana.
The Return of Pandavas: Some stories say that Diwali is a time when the Pandavas returned after serving 14 years in exile. A popular belief in Himachal Pradesh is that Diwali is beginning of the 18 day war of Mahabharata. They celebrate it by dancing and singing stories from the epic.
The Annihilation of Narakasura: Narakasura was the son of goddess Bhudevi and Varaha (the third avatar of Vishnu). He was blessed with a boon—nobody could kill him except his own mother. After the passing away of his mother, he was rendered immortal. When he started causing destruction, Indra requested Vishnu to defeat Narakasura. Vishnu’s avatar Krishna set out to kill Narakasura along with his wife Satyabhama. She was believed to be the reincarnation of Narkasura’s mother, who ultimately killed him. With this, Krishna and Satyabhama freed 16,000 women who were captured by Narakasura. Their victory is celebrated during Diwali. In Goa, effigies of Narakasura are burnt on the dawn of Diwali, to celebrate the dawn of good.
Enlightenment of Lord Mahavira: For Jains, Diwali is a celebration of the day on which Lord Mahavira, the twenty-fourth tirthankara, attained enlightenment or Nirvana.
The Legend of Kali: In West Bengal, Goddess Kali is worshiped during Diwali. Unleashing her wrath, she destroyed all the demons and restored peace in heaven. To pacify her uncontrolled fury, Lord Shiva laid himself down on her path. After stepping on him, she came to her senses and regained composure. (Some stories say, it’s also when she stuck her tongue out)
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The Five Days of Diwali
Day 1: Dhanteras/Dhanvantri Triodashi/Dhantrayodashi
Dhanteras is the first day of Diwali and is celebrated on the 13th day of the Hindu lunar month of Ashvin more popularly in the Northern states, including Gujarat and Maharashtra. According to legend, when the Gods and Demons were churning the ocean of milk to derive nectar or amrit, Goddess Lakshmi emerged with an urn overflowing with gold (or nectar according to some legends) in the form of Dhanvantri (physician of the gods) and since then, this day is celebrated as Dhanteras. On this day, people worship Goddess Lakshmi (one who generates wealth and promotes prosperity), Lord Kubera (one who distributes wealth) and Ganesha (one who removes obstacles) by performing a puja after sunset. Dhanteras will be celebrated on 25th October, 2019. It is considered auspicious to buy new goods on this day such as clothes, appliances, furniture and more importantly, gold or other precious piece of metal. Apart from worshipping the goddess of wealth, people celebrate this day by lighting ghee diyas in every corner of their house to dispel the evil, wearing new ornaments and clothes, exchanging sweets, sticking or imprinting tiny footprints of the goddess at the entrance of the house (symbolising the arrival of goddess Lakshmi), singing bhakti songs and playing taash (card games). In many Maharashtrian households, a naivedyam of crushed coriander seeds with jaggery is offered. Few parts of India worship their cattle on this day as they are their source of income.
Day 2: Choti Diwali/ Narak Chaturdashi/ Roop Chaturdashi/
Bali Pratipada/Kali Chaudas
The second day celebrates the victory of good over evil. According to legend, on this day Lord Krishna arrived victorious after defeating the demon Narkasura, freeing over 16000 women held in his captivity. Another story related to this day is of the annihilation of the greedy but conscientious king Bali by Vishnu’s Vaman avatar. Vishnu approaches King Bali in his Vaman (dwarf) avatar and asks for a piece of land covering his three footsteps. Sneering at this petty request, the king agrees. In his two steps alone Vaman covers all the three lokas (worlds). To fulfill his promise, the King bows his head and is destroyed by Lord Vishnu. Thus, this day also teaches us to keep a check on one's greed and ego.
This year Narak Chaturdashi falls on 26th October 2019. In Maharashtra and some parts of southern India, a traditional practice on this day is to wake up before sunrise and have an abhyanga snana (oil bath) with ubtan (fragrant powder made with gram flour). People light up their homes with clay diyas and make beautiful rangolis in their courtyards. A dip in the holy waters of Ganga on this day is believed to absolve one of all past sins. In many households kheer is prepared on this day. In parts of South India, lamps are lit all over in Krishna temples. In parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan, Goddess Kali is worshipped on this day. People avoid stepping out of their houses, wash their hair and apply kajal to ward off the evil.
Day 3: Lakshmi Puja
The third day is the main day of Diwali and this year it falls on the 27th of October. The Goddess of wealth Lakshmi is worshipped to seek her blessings and bring prosperity and wisdom in each one’s life. Ganeha (remover of obstacles), Saraswati (goddess of wisdom and knowledge) and Kali (the protector) are also worshipped. Clay diyas and lanterns light up homes, and people dress up in new ethnic clothes. Prayers are said and this is the time when family members exchange gifts and sweets with each other. In parts of Maharashtra, married women celebrate Haldi Kumkum and invite each other to their homes. This is also the night when family and friends burst crackers together. Among the business communities, this is a big day as the old books are closed and a new year begins in the hope of prosperity.
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Day 4: Govardhan Puja/Padwa/Varshapratiprada/Annakoot Puja
The fourth day of Diwali falling on 28th October this year, celebrates the victory of Lord Krishna over Indra. According to mythological tales, on this day Krishna mounted the Govardhan parvat on his little finger and saved people of Gokul from the fury of Lord Indra’s thunderous showers. This festival is more popularly celebrated in the Northern states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. On this day, devotees prepare chappan bhog or 56 varieties of food items and offer them to Lord Krishna. The deities are bathed with milk and dressed in new vastras (clothes) and ornaments. In some communities of India, cows and bulls are adorned with garlands and saffron tilak. This day also marks the beginning of a new year for the natives of Gujarat. In Maharashtra this day is called Padwa. Women and daughters apply tilak on the forehead of their father or husband in return for which they get a gift as a token of love.
Day 5: Bhai Dooj/Bhaiya Dooj/Bhau Beez/Bhai Phonta/Yama
The last day of Diwali celebrates the sacred bond between a brother and sister. As the story goes, Lord Krishna after defeating the demon Narakasura went to visit his sister Subhadra. She welcomed him by applying vermilion tilak on his forehead, showering flowers on him and giving him his favorite sweets. According to another mythological text, this was the day when the Lord of death Yama visited his sister Yamuna. It’s the day when brothers and sisters meet and exchange gifts and good wishes with one another, praying for the well-being and good fortune of each other. A few folklore also believe that a brother who visits his sister on this auspicious day, becomes free from all sins. This year, Bhai Dooj will be celebrated on October 29.
Diwali celebrations across India
A common ritual of lighting up houses with diyas and lanterns, meeting and greeting friends and family and exchanging gifts and good wishes, is seen throughout the country. However, here are ceremonies and beliefs that set them apart:
North India: The Northern states of India celebrate Diwali to commemorate the return of their beloved Lord Rama along with Sita, brother Lakshman and a loyal companion, Hanuman after a 14 year exile. Along with Lakshmi pujan, Taash (card) parties are hosted, some business communities gambling consider gambling an auspicious act on this day. Diwali melas (fairs) are also major attractions in North India.
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East India: In West Bengal,
Goddess Kali is worshiped on the night of Diwali. In a few rural areas of
Bengal and Orissa, diyas are kept to guide departed souls towards the path of
heaven. Decorating courtyards with alpana
or rangolis is also a common practice in these parts of India.
West India: Diwali is considered a very auspicious time for starting new businesses in Gujarat, Rajasthan and some parts of North India. Making rangolis and footprints of Goddess Lakshmi around the house is considered auspicious. Farmers worship cows and other cattle. While nuts and dry fruits are exchanged in plenty in the northern parts of the country, considering Diwali also signals the onset of the winter months, sweets and savories such as besan laddus, karanji, chivda, chakli are made in Maharashtra, and choraphali are made at home only during Diwali in Gujarat.
South India: The second day of Deepavali (Narak Chaturdashi or Choti Diwali) is considered the most important in the south. Kolam designs made with rice paste adorn the entrances of homes. In Andhra Pradesh, special praises for Krishna’s wife Satyabhama are sung for they consider her to be the destroyer of Narakasura. In Karnataka, oil bathing is an important ritual during Diwali. In a few households, forts are made from cow dung.
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The Significance of Diwali Symbols and Rituals
Swastika: It is a symbol of auspiciousness, good luck and prosperity and hence is commonly seen imprinted at the entrances of homes or in temples. Along with Hinduism, it is considered a positive sign in Buddhism and Jainism too.
Diyas: The lighting of diyas or earthen lamps during Diwali signify dispelling darkness and evil with the light of knowledge and wisdom. The burning of the wick symbolizes the melting of one’s ego and ignorance. And so, the diyas lit during Diwali holds a deeper significance at a spiritual level.
Rangoli: Rangoli, called alpana in Bengali and Kolam in Tamil is
a brightly colored artwork created with rice flour, colored sand or flower
petals. It is considered auspicious during Hindu ceremonies and festivals. The
patterns of rangoli are believed to trap the negative energies and spread
positivity and happiness among people.
Lanterns: Also known as Kandeel or Akash Diwa, brightly colored lanterns add to the festive mood of Diwali, and are seen lighting up homes in Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and parts of south India. In some parts of India, lanterns are believed to invite the departed souls of ancestors back to earth to celebrate the festival with their family.
Footprints: The red Kumkum colored footprints symbolize the arrival of Goddess Lakshmi in the homes of people. Her arrival is a mark of prosperity, wealth and wisdom in the lives of people. It also signifies progress and growth of spiritual personality.
Cleaning Homes: According to
folklore, Goddess Lakshmi only visits houses that are clean, neat and tidy and
decorated beautifully for her arrival. However, there is more to it. Diwali is
also the beginning of a new year in some Indian cultures. Hence, it is
important to leave behind old, worn out and damaged goods while embracing the
new things that bring positivity and freshness in your homes. It is also a time
when family and friends pay a visit and hence it is important to invite them in
a clean and happy space.
Exchanging gifts, sweets and savories: The festival of Diwali is all about developing the sentiment of sharing and caring for one another. This is done by the means of exchanging gifts and seeking blessings of the elders. It is also a time for bonding among friends and family. When sweets and savories are prepared and eaten together at home it develops a sense of love, friendship and deeper understanding of each other. It is also a way of developing goodwill and harmony towards one another.
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How can we miss out on food?
Diwali is incomplete without the lip smacking, soul soothing, rich and decadent sweets and savories over which friends and family bond. Feasting is an important part of festivals and here are the most common Diwali treats:-
Laddu: The most popular Diwali sweet are these balls of goodness, full of dry fruits and nuts. Besan, boondi, motichoor, atta and coconut laddu are the most loved ones.
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Chakli: Chakli or Murruku are spiral shaped savoury snacks that are crispy and traditionally made from urad dal and rice flour. Today, a variety of chaklis are available in flavours such as cheese, soy, schezwan and ingredients such as ragi.
Chivda: Another savoury snack that is part of the Maharashtrian faral is Chivda. It is made with rice flakes and is roasted along with dry coconut slices, fried corn flakes and peanuts.
Anarse: Anarse/Anarsa is a sweet which is popularly made during Diwali in parts of Maharashtra and Bihar. It is prepared with rice flour, poppy seeds, jaggery and ghee. Crispy from the outside while soft on the inside, anarsa is a much-loved Diwali sweet.
Karanji: Karanji in Maharashtra, or Kadubu in Kannada, also called gujiya in the north is a dumpling shaped fried sweet which is made of maida and stuffed with a coconut-jaggery-sesame or khoya and dried fruits mixture. Diwali faral is incomplete without karanji!
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Chorafali: A special Gujarati savoury made during Diwali, Chorafali is a much loved crispy snack. It is deep fried and sprinkled with red chilli powder and chaat masala before eating.
Choddo Shak: Literally translated as 14-greens, this West Bengal speciality is made on the day of Kali Puja. Fourteen varieties of green leafy vegetables are used to prepare this traditional recipe.
Shankarpali/Shakkar pare: A popular snack recipe from the Western India, Shankarpali are bite-sized, diamond shaped deep fried treats made with wheat/refined flour, ghee and sugar that are especially made during Diwali.
A few other popular
sweetmeats made during Diwali include Gulab Jamun, Halwa, Barfi, Soan Papdi,
Kaju Katli, Mohanthal (Gujarat) and Chirote (Karnataka). Some more savoury
options enjoyed during the festive season are: samosas, mathiyas, namak paras,
bhajiyas and sev.
Also Read: Festive Treats that Love You Back
Apart from these traditional recipes, Diwali parties today are also witnessing an increasing number of fusion foods and party special finger foods that are becoming very popular. Along with the deep fried sweets, baked desserts too are being liked and complemented. With more people hopping on the fitness wagon, you can try making some fun healthy recipes that will leave your guests impressed. Worried about guests who want dairy-free sweets without ghee? Look no more! Try these easy dairy-free dessert recipes shared by gourmet chefs. And the fun doesn’t stop here! Hosting a Diwali party also means entertaining your guests with some fun cocktails. Pull a perfect Diwali party with these easy and mind blowing cocktails at home.
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