We’re sat cross-legged on the floor – Ankit, Ankit’s dad, mum, brother and I – in front of the mandir, which is heavily decorated with red lights and marigold flowers. A carefully put together arrangement of diyas is majestically burning and filling the dark room with a serene, golden glow. Outside, loud firecrackers and fireworks are going off at irregular intervals, and the room is deeply scented with incense and gunpowder.
Everyone has their heads bowed while Ankit’s mum recites a puja to Goddess Lakshmi, her head covered as a mark of respect. Once the prayer is over, she performs a few rituals, which includes giving the goddess an ‘offering’ of rice and a sweet made from pure sugar. The whole proceeding is spiritually beautiful, and I realise that you don’t need to be religious to appreciate the meaning and emotion that goes into prayers. Regardless of how we ‘label’ a religion, we’re all essentially hoping that somewhere out there there’s something bigger than us – something that gives a deeper and more meaningful significance to our chaotic existence.
The puja ends, and we step outside onto the balcony to spread more diyas around the home. Fireworks are going off all around us, and the skyline is romantically dotted with the diyas that are lit on the rooftops and balconies of each home. It’s one of those instances in life where I find myself immersed in a culture different to my own, and I’m filled with the ecstatic elation you get from being truly present in a beautiful moment.
I say a silent thank you to whatever is out there and reenter the home full of gratitude.
Diwali – Festival of Lights
We’ve just performed Diwali prayers. Diwali is a five-day Hindu festival that’s celebrated with gusto in India, and I’m told it’s the most important festival of the year. The main night of the festivities coincides with the darkest, new moon night of the Hindu lunisolar month Kartika. In the Gregorian calendar, it falls between mid-October and mid-November.
The significance of Diwali varies according to which region of India you find yourself in, but generally for many it is linked to the celebration of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. For others, it honours the return of God Rama, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana to the kingdom after an exile of fourteen years.
A Five-Day Extravaganza
Our Diwali celebrations may have started with Dhanteras, but the truth is that weeks before we had even arrived in India, Ankit’s mum had been busy cleaning the house from top to bottom, preparing for the festival. It’s customary for Hindus to do this in the run up to Diwali, much like how Greek Orthodox worshippers in Cyprus clean and paint their homes in the run up to Easter.
In fact, during the festival, I was repeatedly surprised at how similar so many of the rituals are; wearing new clothes on the big day, making an abundance of food to share with everyone, lighting candles (or diyas) to bring light to the home. It always strikes me how similar religious worship is, no matter to which God, and then I wonder why on earth people kill each other in the name of it.
Dhanteras is the first of the five-day festival. Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped to bring prosperity and well-being to both the home and businesses. On this day, it’s customary for Hindus to buy gold and new utensils for the home. Sure enough, Ankit’s mum headed to the market and bought some new bowls.
We met her halfway during the day to buy sweets, which are gifted to family members, friends and staff. The frenzy in the sweet shop was a little overwhelming; there were people everywhere, both men and women, trying to reach the counter to take their pick. I then wondered what the rest of the shops were looking like, and according to my sources, it was madness. Sounds like Christmas Eve shopping to me, which is my idea of hell on earth and is to be avoided at all costs.
The third day of Diwali is the Lakshmi puja that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I haven’t talked about the second day, as we didn’t really do much here apart from a small puja, but I’ve read that many people spend this day getting henna done on their hands and preparing sweets for the big occasion.
On the day of Lakshmi Puja, there’s a lot of frenetic activity at home. Items are bought in preparation, such as garlands of marigolds that are used to decorate the house, and sweets and other offerings for the puja.
Ankit’s mum did not sit down all day. I watched admiringly as she put together a beautiful decoration at the front of the house; using red tikka powder, she drew small footprints leading up to the front door. These are used to indicate Goddess Lakshmi’s arrival into the home. Along with these, she dotted diyas and flower petals to complete the arrangement. It looked beautiful.
We also sat and prepared loads of diyas for the night. This involved separating all the cotton wicks and placing them into the clay lamps. Then, she put together a colourful display of diyas in front of the mandir that we prayed to. In some homes, they also do colourful displays of rangoli in the front of their homes. They look so impressive – I’d love to learn how to do it in the future!
Celebrating With A Bang
That evening, we prayed and we ate. A lot.
All night, we could hear the loud bangs of crackers and fireworks all around us. It was so atmospheric to step outside and see all the homes covered in lights and diyas, and witness all the fireworks climbing into the sky. We also set off some fireworks at Ankit’s uncle’s home.
While there’s no denying that burning fireworks and crackers adds to the atmosphere of the festival, I can’t help but feel that it’s done a little too excessively here. The air was thick with smoke and the next day the place was full of garbage. Not the most environmentally-friendly of days!
Padwa And Bhai Dooj
The following day, Padwa is celebrated. Again, we didn’t do much at home, but the day ritually celebrates the love between husband and wife, and gifts are usually given by the husband.
Then the final day of the festival is marked by Bhai Dooj, which celebrates the bond between sisters and brothers. In the spirit of the day, Ankit’s mum invited her two brothers and their families to the house for a puja, and to eat – yes, more food!
As Grandiose As Expected
And with Bhai Dooj, the five days came to a conclusion. It really was special to finally experience Diwali in India. I had always marvelled at the Diwali celebrations of the Indian community in my university town of Leicester, but it’s obviously an entirely different experience at home. It was every bit as colourful as I imagined it would be and if you ever have the chance to come to India during this time you absolutely must.
Being witness to these proceedings, and realising just how similar these rituals are to those we perform back home, I can’t help but wonder whether if more people had the opportunity to experience other cultures, that they’d soon realise that we are (shock, horror) all the same. Hatred stems from ignorance, and it’s a shame that in a world where we should be celebrating our similarities, people are being killed for what are perceived as differences.
Have you ever been to India during Diwali? If so, what were your experiences? Or have you celebrated Diwali elsewhere in the world?