The Festival of Lights is one of the brightest and most widely celebrated holidays around the world. So what is Diwali and how is it celebrated?
Once the South Asian summer comes to an end and the weather begins to cool, billions of people all over the world begin looking forward to the festival of lights: Diwali.
Also known as Deepavali in some regions, Diwali is a global celebration. The exact reasons for celebrating Diwali changes from region to region, culture to religion, but there tends to be an agreement over the festival representing the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance.
The festival usually spans over five days but the main day is the third, Lakshmi Puja, and is an official holiday in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago! Outside of these countries, millions more people celebrate Diwali in any country with South Asian populations including the UK and other European countries.
Photo: Kabita Darlami/Unsplash
The major religious groups that celebrate Diwali are Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Newar Buddhists. With the celebration spanning so many different traditions, you might ask: why celebrate Diwali? Well, that depends on who you ask and where they live.
The most common Hindu association for the festival of lights is to celebrate Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. Another popular reason is to celebrate the day Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile and then defeated Ravana in Lanka. Other regions might be celebrating one of the other many gods and goddesses: Vishnu, Krishna, Ganesha, Dhanvantari, etc.
Outside of Hinduism, the celebration of Diwali has many other reasons. Sikhs are celebrating Bandi Chhor Divas to honor Guru Hargobind being released from prison in the Gwalior Fort. Jains observe Diwali to mark the anniversary of Nirvana, the liberation of Mahavira’s soul. Some Hindus are celebrating Diwali by the worship of the goddess Kali. And finally, Newar Buddhists are actually also worshipping the goddess Lakshmi in their celebrations.
The Festival of light is usually a five-day affair. But before this begins, the weeks heading into Diwali are spent redecorating, cleaning, and renovating the home. Both homes and offices are decorated with diyas, oil lamps that give Diwali its name, and rangolis, colorful art patterns usually created on floors or tabletops. During this time, people also buy new clothes and jewelry in preparation for the festivities.
On the first day of the Diwali festivals, time is spent on final decorations, focusing on the diyas and rangolis around the house and near Lakshmi and Ganesha iconography. It is also a major shopping day to purchase new kitchen utensils or other home equipment. The evening concludes with prayers and offerings to both Lakshmi and Ganesha.
The second day of Diwali’s rituals are focused on liberating any souls from their suffering in hell, or Naraka. It is also a time to remember spiritual auspiciousness for all. Outside of the religious ceremonies, this day is also spent on purchasing the needed festival foods for the next day, the main day of Diwali. People will also spend time visiting friends and relatives.
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Lakshmi Puja is the third day of Diwali and is the height of all celebrations. This special evening is awash in lamps and candles across the temples of the Hindu, Jain, and Sikh worlds. People put on their best clothes or recently purchased outfits and head out to light the lamps and diyas, lining them in rows around houses and temples, or even floating them in rivers and local canals.
Afterward, the celebration continues by lighting patakhe (fireworks) and sharing a family feast. While the celebrations themselves look similar across the different regions celebrating Diwali, the religious focus varies from tradition to tradition. The next day celebrates the beginning of the bright fortnight of the luni-solar calendar. This day traditionally celebrates the bond between husband and wife, with husbands giving gifts to their wives in some communities. Religious traditions vary drastically on the fourth day of Diwali but community meals play a large role in many celebrations.
The last day of Diwali translates to “brother’s day” and celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters. It’s traditional for the brother to visit their sisters and their families. After performing prayers for the wellbeing of their brothers, sometimes the rituals continue by the sister feeding their brothers with their hands and/or by receiving gifts from their brothers.
With the multiple days of celebration, the abundance of sweets and treats, and the beautiful sights of diyas and rangolis, you might wonder if tourists or visitors can take part in the Diwali festivities or indeed even participate in your home country. The answer is a resounding yes!
Regardless of your faith or background, Diwali revelers welcome any and all into the celebration. Just be sure to wear your most colorful and bright clothing. While the religious meaning varies from one region to another, all can take hope in the core of the Diwali message: the triumph of light over darkness.
If you are invited to take part in any religious ceremonies, arrive with a respectful and meditative attitude. Take your cues from your guests, following their lead on any activities you partake in. Be sure to remove your shoes whenever and wherever you see everybody else removing theirs. So whether you’re visiting one of the numerous countries that celebrate Diwali or you are connected with a community of South Asians locally, don’t hesitate to enjoy everything this lovely and important holiday has to offer.
During Diwali, the hope is that this coming together of light will be auspicious for you and your loved ones. May the diyas and the patakhe, the shared sweets, and friendships be a reminder to you to always be a source of joy, radiance, and knowledge in this world.