What is Diwali?
The term ‘Diwali’ is something that we often hear around this time of year, but have you ever wondered what it is? Let us take you on a whistle-stop tour of Diwali, who it belongs to and what it actually means.
Diwali is an extremely important religious festival that is normally celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, some Buddhists and Jains throughout the world. Originally celebrated in ancient India, the actual word ‘Diwali’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Deepavali’, which translates as ‘rows of lighted lamps’. The festival usually lasts five days and is held between mid-October and mid-November. The exact dates are dependent on the Hindu luni-solar calendar, namely ‘Kartika’. This special calendar is based on the position of the Sun and the Moon. Each religion has their own historical narrative behind the festival; however, they all represent the same theme – the victory of good over evil.
Diwali is usually referred to as the ‘Festival of Lights’ and many Hindus celebrate the return of Lord Rama, Sita and Lakshman to Ayodhya (their hometown) after 14 years long years away. Legend has it that the streets and towns were lit up with candles to welcome them home. In South India, Diwali is the day on which the demon Narakasura was defeated by Sri Krishna and Satyabhama.
Over the five days of celebration, certain rituals happen. Day 1 is known as ‘Dhanteras’ – The Day of Fortune. Houses are cleaned to prepare for the arrival of the goddess Lakshmi who is believed to bring wealth and prosperity. After the cleaning, prayers to her take place. Homes are decorated with oil lamps called ‘diyas’ and intricate patterns called ‘rangolis’ are created. These patterns are made using brightly coloured powder, rice and flower petals and their purpose is to welcome visitors and to bring good fortune.
Day 2 is known as ‘Naraka Chaturdashi’ – The Day of Knowledge. Before sunrise, holy baths with perfumes and hot oils are taken. Whilst the diyas continue to be burned, mornings are spent making delicious foods and sweets using ingredients such as chickpea flour, dried fruit, spices and rice. We can just imagine that the smells in these houses are mouth-watering! The god of focus today is called Shiva and prayers are directed towards her.
Day 3 is the day that is actually known as ‘Diwali’ – The Day of Light. Today marks the return of Lord Rama, Sita and Lakshman to their hometown after 14 years. Those who celebrate Diwali wear their best clothes and go the temple to honour Lakshmi. In homes, windows and doors are opened in preparation for Lakshmi’s arrival that night and the diyas are lit to show her the way into their homes. In the evening, friends and family are welcomed into homes to share a feast before lighting fireworks. It is believed that the loud bangs of the fireworks will keep evil spirits away and allow Lakshmi to arrive safely.
Day 4 is known as ‘Annakut’ meaning New Year. For many people celebrating Diwali, today marks the beginning of a new year. It is a special day full of good wishes and many families exchange gifts.
Finally, Day 5 is called ‘Bhai Dooj’ – The Day of Love Between Siblings. This is a celebration of the special bond between siblings. Siblings apply ‘tilak’ (three marks) to each other’s foreheads and perform prayers for one another. They promise to protect each other and usually share some scrumptious Indian sweets!
In addition to the celebration of good overcoming evil, Sikhs celebrate the importance of ‘freedom’ during Diwali. For Sikhs, Diwali coincides with the celebration known as ‘Bandi Chhor Divas’, which means ‘the freeing of prisoners’ day. Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji was imprisoned but when he was eventually freed, he refused to leave unless fifty-two Hindu princes could also be released. The emperor said that only the princes who could cling to the Guru's coat could leave. Therefore, legend has it that Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji had a coat made with fifty-two tassels attached so each prince could hold onto one and leave prison with him. The ending of the story is that Guru Hargobind Sahib Ji arrived back in the Golden Temple on Diwali.
Similarly, Sikhs celebrate Diwali by cleaning their homes and decorating them with ‘diyas’ and candles. Rows of them are placed in windows, doors and outside buildings. Sikhs visit the ‘gurdwara’ - their place of worship - and a feast is served at the community kitchen, known as the ‘langar’. The ‘Akhand Path’ is performed - this is an unbroken reading of the entire Guru Granth Sahib Ji (the Sikh sacred scriptures), and this reading lasts for forty-eight hours. Traditionally, Sikhs exchange sweets, particularly ‘prashad’ and dried fruit. Street processions and firework displays are also carried out to celebrate the extremely important festival.
We hope that you have enjoyed reading all about Diwali and have hopefully learnt something new!