To my Hindu brothers and sisters, may your Diwali be a joyous and peaceful one.
What is Diwali?
By Lizzie Porter, London Telegraph
Millions of Hindus and Jains – followers of an ancient Indian religion that shares concepts with Hinduism and Buddhism – celebrate every year. Events have traditionally taken place on the Subcontinent, but now happen in diaspora communities around the world.
Marked annually by yellow flickers of light appearing in shop windows, public places and homes, Diwali – popularly known as the ‘festival of lights’ – is a five-day festival celebrating light, knowledge and good nature.
The celebration’s fireworks, attractive decorations and light displays also mean that it has become popular among non-observers of these religions.
Sikhs celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas on the same day, marking the liberation of the Sixth Guru from prison.
In Hinduism, light is seen as a metaphor for self-improvement, self-awareness and community, and its celebration allows followers to reaffirm their commitment to such values.
Diwali – derived from the Sanskrit, “deepawali”, meaning “row of lights” – also marks the beginning of the Hindu New Year. Some followers will pray for good business prospects in the months to come.
For many – notably residents of northern India – Diwali is a time to celebrate the legend of Lord Shri Rama, who returned to Ayodhya after 14 years in exile, having been banished by his stepmother with his brother Laksmana and his wife Sita.
While expelled in the forest, the princess was captured by Ravana, the 10-headed king of the demons. After a battle, Rama was successfully able to recapture her and the couple returned to Ayodhya for a period of rule (Ram-raj) that was said to be prosperous and untroubled.
Their story is documented in the Sanskrit epic Ramayana, traditionally believed to have been written sometime between 500 BCE to 100 BCE by the sage Maharshi Valmiki.
Diwali is also a time to honour the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, and rows of lanterns are lit to guide her into people’s homes. People may leave their doors open during the festival to prompt her entry.
In the Bengal region, Diwali fetes the goddess Kali, of time and death, who is often seen as a strong mother figure.
In Nepal, Diwali is a celebration of Lord Krishna over Narakaasura, a demon who was thought to have kidnapped women and stolen land.
It is also celebrated by Hindu minorities in Pakistan and Bhutan.
When does Diwali take place?
The five-day celebration takes place in October or November every year in the Gregorian calendar: the exact dates are dependent on the Hindu lunar calendar.
This year the actual day of Diwali takes place on Wednesday November 11.
The eve of Diwali is known as Narak Chaturdasi, the day on which the demon Narakaasura met his death.
Celebrations continue until the fifth day, Bhaiyadooj (Feast to brothers), when women give presents to their male siblings, and the Diwali festivities end in memorable fashion.
How is it celebrated?
Diwali is traditionally marked with the illumination of small earthenware oil lamps called diyas, made with coconut oil, ghee and wicks of cotton string.
Today, they are accompanied by more lavish displays of electronic lights over buildings and extraordinary fireworks displays.
Specific rituals and traditions vary between regions, and may last four or five days. Many Indian towns and cities hold a large mela – fair – that often involves farmers coming to buy and sell produce.
Traditionally the day of Diwali involves Lakshmi Puja – prayer, invocations and rituals for the goddess Lakshmi – and the distribution of new clothes, sweetmeats and other gifts. Crackers are ubiquitous.
The day after is given over to Govardhan Puja – worship of Lord Govardhan Puja – which, according to legend, was performed by Lord Krishna with a group of mortals to protect them from torrential rain.
On the last day, Bhaiyadooj, women give presents to their male siblings, and the Diwali festivities end in memorable fashion.
Rangoli – Indian folk art patterns that are thought to be more than 5,000 years old – are drawn on floors of courtyards, and entrances of houses throughout Diwali, as another way to welcome Lakshmi. Many of the beautiful tracings incorporate flowers, petals and shapes of lotus blossom; others are simply geometric shapes.
Fireworks displays have become an integral part of Diwali celebrations both in India and around the world, all the more because the festival takes place around the night of the new moon (Amavasya).
Throughout, plain flatbreads are replaced by more extravagant puris, which are deep-fried in expensive ghee (clarified butter).
Feasts are interspersed with never-ending supplies of sweet and savoury Diwali snacks, made from chickpea or rice flour, nuts, dried fruit, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Gold leaf decorations adorn the sweets of the wealthiest.