Festivals in India are marked by the eager anticipation by young and old! New clothes! The gathering of extended family members! The exchange of gossip and gifts! All these facets add to the color, fun, and frolic of the holidays. And the food? Ah yes! Although the religious rituals appropriate to each occasion are the most important aspects of the holidays, the climax is really the meal.
The most important driver determining the size, scope, and ritual in a festival is the family tradition, which explains why these observances vary so much from region to region and sometimes within a region. Non-Hindus can feel confused by this variety, struggling to see a unifying principle beneath it all. But Hindus simply accept the diversity —even relish it — and don’t mind if the family next door practices the same festival in a different manner. The word uniformity hardly exists in the Hindu world! But don’t worry; in this chapter, I help you figure out the fundamentals about Hindu festivals and holydays.
Diwali is India’s festival of lights. The literal meaning of the word diwali is a “row of lamps.” Earthen lamps (small enough to fit in a child’s palm) are still used in rural India. Filled with a couple tablespoonfuls of oil and a cotton wick, they’re lit and arranged in a pattern or rows on a home’s or public building’s threshold, roof edges, window sills, and front porch. In urban areas, electric bulbs are used. The row after row of these lights, in every building, proclaim a happy occasion for one and all. The event is celebrated in the Hindu month of Kartika in the dark fortnight that falls in late October or early November.
So, what does Diwali celebrate?
* The return of the epic hero Rama to his kingdom after 14 years of exile: North Indians associate the Diwali festival with Rama. They consider Diwali to be the day when he made his triumphal entrance to his capital Ayodhya after 14 years of exile (see Chapter 12). Legend has it that the overjoyed citizens decorated their homes and lit hundreds of lamps to greet their king.
* Dhanalakshmi, the goddess of wealth: Merchants and businessmen worship Lakshmi in the form of Dhanalakshmi (Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth) during the Diwali festival. In fact, businesses use this special day of celebration to close the books for the year and make preparations to begin the new fiscal year. The day is believed to coincide with the emergence of the goddess from the milky ocean during the great churning event when gods and demons churned the ocean to recover the many precious items that had been lost during the great flood. (I tell this story in Chapter 8.)
In addition to the rows and rows of lamps or light bulbs, fire crackers are lit and displayed by children. Wearing new clothes and jewelry is a must, as is distributing a variety of sweets. The excitement among clothing and jewelry merchants is palpable as they expect to make a lot of money during the week before Diwali!
The Diwali season is also a bonanza for those who sell sweets. Many varieties of aromatic, colorful, and delicious sweets are made fresh just for this season, and thousands of pounds of these delicacies are bought and distributed among family and friends. In large cities, the whole city erupts with gaiety, color, smiles, and sweets.
* Extracted from my book Hinduism for Dummies