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Wednesday
Oct192011

Insider guide to India: Diwali

Take one of the most important Hindu festivals of the year.  Combine it with the beginning of the festive season (read weddings, weddings, weddings). Add in a dash of deliciously pleasant weather after a long hot summer, and what do you get ?

Diwali, that’s what.

The Hindu festival of lights is an occasion that brings out the best in each and every inhabitant of India - shopping for gifts, eating rich sweets, visiting family and friends, lighting up your home, playing cards and gambling, buying new clothes, and ushering in a new year.  Realistically, what more can one ask ?

It’s hard to resist the appeal of Diwali.

The religious and spiritual origins of the holiday commemorate the return from 14 years of exile of Lord Rama, his wife Sita, and his faithful, ever-loyal brother Lakshman.  The evil demon Ravana was destroyed, and just as in the festival of Dussehra, which precedes Diwali, the triumph of good over evil is thus celebrated. 

Lighting little oil lamps, or “diyas”, symbolizes this, and everywhere in India, on Diwali night, “diyas” are lit, casting a magical feel to neighbourhoods.  Houses are decked with scores of little lanterns, and, increasingly in a city like Delhi, with rows of fairy lights.

Houses are a blaze of lights.  Diyas and fairy lights and lanterns and tinsel – homes literally are an extravagance of colour and sensory overload.

The night skies on Diwali are a riot of fireworks, which get more and more extravagant each year.  What used to be a few packets of sparklers for children and a couple of Roman Candles in the garden, is now a mega-industry.  Neighbours compete with each other to set off the most impressive and the loudest fireworks. For days – weeks even – before Diwali, youngsters roam the streets, setting off patakas or firecrackers, the night soundscape interrupted by volleys of explosions.  The only down side to all this noisy happiness, is that pets, and all the stray dogs that live in India’s streets are absolutely terrorized.

Days before Diwali, people begin shopping with a vengeance.  Traditionally, you offer sweets and dry fruit to family, friends and colleagues at Diwali, and then you criss-cross the city to deliver them, leading to mega festival-induced traffic jams.  But as this season is also one for huge festive discounts, people traditionally shop for major household purchases, too, so between the boxes of sweets, and the new fridge, and the new clothes for all those Diwali parties, this is a great time of the year for business.  Shops -  all decorated with lights and tinsel – stay open even later than usual, and shopping centres are jam-packed.

Some money has, of course, to be saved from all this shopping, for the traditional - and considered to be auspicious – Diwali card games.  Tradition has it that Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati were playing cards, and she decreed that anyone who gambled on Diwali night would prosper.

So playing cards in the days leading up to Diwali has become a social adjunct to this religious tradition.  Card parties are as much a part of 21st century Diwali as lighting up your home.

So, you’ve shopped.  You’ve played cards and had excessively late nights for the preceeding few weeks.  You’ve endured the traffic to drop off your Diwali gifts to your colleagues.  You have lit your little clay diyas (oil lamps) and switched on your rows of fairy lights draped around your windows and doors and gate.

You are wearing your best party clothes.

You know you are eating too much, and will do for the next few days, but, what the heck, it is Diwali after all, the brightest and noisiest festival of the year.

And you know the best thing ?

India never does anything by halves, so why restrict a festival to just one day, when you can make it last for 5 ?  Diwali stretches for 4 more days afterwards, each one devoted to a different ritual and tradition.  So there are more days of fun and lights and presents and visits and food and family.

Diwali Mubarak. 

Happy Diwali.

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