Diwali celebrations

Diwali or, more appropriately, Deepawali (from Sanskrit, literally meaning a row of lighted “diyas” – clay lamps) is also popularly referred to as the “Festival of Lights”.  It is an important and popular Hindu festival and, thanks to the ever-increasing Indian diaspora, is now celebrated internationally with a lot of pomp and show (and noise, in India).  It celebrates the homecoming of a mythological king after several years of exile and represents the “victory of good over evil”.  This year, Diwali is being celebrated on October 27.

People often allude to the Upanishad shloka excerpt “Tamso ma jyotirgamay” (Keep me not in the Darkness (of Ignorance), but lead me towards the Light (of Spiritual Knowledge), when speaking to the ethos of Diwali.  However, like most things – whether spiritual, religious or just plain common sense – the true spirit of Diwali is gradually being eclipsed by ritualistic and populist symbolism.  Today, while the electric bulbs strung outside our houses are no doubt a lot brighter than the traditional diyas, I fondly long for the rows of those twinkling earthen lamps, each one bravely dispelling a small patch of darkness and in the process giving off a plume of thick soot, rich with the fragrant aroma of the combusting “sarson ka tel” (mustard oil).

Every family has its own rituals and ways in which they celebrate this very popular festival.  Some ladies and young girls make intricate decorative patterns (“rangoli”) on the floor by their main entrance using colored rice, dry flour, colored sand, lentils and flower petals.  Rangoli is considered to be auspicious and said to bring good luck.  Friends and family visit with each other and share elaborate meals and good times together, exchanging sweets and gifts.  On Diwali day, families usually offer prayers to the Goddess Lakshmi (the Goddess of wealth) while also taking care to propitiate other preferred, favorite family gods and goddesses to seek favors and blessings.  “Teen patti” (literally, “three cards” similar to the higher wager flush type of game) sessions start weeks in advance as urban legend has it that the one who does not gamble at Diwali will be born a dog in the afterlife!

Firecrackers are bought in sufficient quantities to outlast the “firepower” display by neighbors well into the night.  While the display of ostentatious behavior continues unabated to this day, the use of firecrackers is being discouraged across several Indian cities to mitigate the already high levels of air and noise pollution.

My wife and I stopped giving or accepting festive gifts back in the 1980s and initially faced a great deal of criticism for being “scrooges.”  Instead of blowing money up in smoke or spending on gifts most people would repackage and recycle, we wished to try and make a difference to the life of at least one person.  That was when we sponsored our first child through SOS Children’s Villages.

Diwali, while rooted in Hindu mythology, has traditionally been celebrated by all Indians irrespective of caste, religion or class.  However, reflecting on the growing intolerance that is now tearing apart age-old syncretic traditions, a leading one Urdu poet laments that:

Mil ke hoti thii kabhi Eid bhi Diwali bhi Together, we used to celebrate Eid and Diwali, too
Ab ye haalat hai ke dar dar ke gale milte hain (But) such are the circumstances now that we are fearful of embracing the other

However, I am also reminded of an episode from the life of the legendary poet Mirza Ghalib (1797 – 1869) highlighted in a 1988 TV serial documenting his life, produced by the famous lyricist, poet and director Gulzar.  Ghalib is shown walking homewards on Diwali eve and comes across a couple of servants of his friend Sukhanand, a Hindu businessman.  The two men of Hindu faith themselves, greet Ghalib and inform him that they were returning from his residence after delivering Diwali sweets sent by their master.  Ghalib graciously tips them and requests that they convey his gratitude and Diwali greetings to their employer.

An old, orthodox Muslim man who is observing this exchange calls out to Ghalib, “Mirza, will you now partake of Diwali sweets?”

Ghalib responds, “Sir, it is “barfi” (milk based dense sweet); would you like some?”

“What? Being a Muslim?” queries the cleric incredulously.

“So, is the “barfi” Hindu?” chuckles Ghalib.

“Of course.  Or is it Mussalman?  Shia or a Sunni?” shoots back the fellow Muslim.

Ghalib lingers for a minute and then asks pointedly, “And what about “jalebi” (pretzel shaped wheat flour, deep fried and soaked in sugar syrup)?  What is its faith/caste?  Is it a “Khatri” (from “Kshatriya” – Hindu caste of warriors), Shia or Sunni?” before walking on, shaking his head and laughing.

The Urdu poet Shakeb Jalali writes:

Pyaar ki jot se ghar-ghar hai charaaghaan varnaa (It is) the radiance of love that illumines each dwelling
Ek bhi shammaa naa roshan ho havaa ke dar se (Else, if) fearful of the wind, not one lamp would stay alight

Diwali Mubarak!

Or, lest I hurt the sentiments of some folks, Diwali ki hardik shub-kaamnaayein!  Shubh Deepawali!

2 Replies to “Diwali celebrations”

  1. Diwali Mubarak to you too!

    Growing up in Tanzania, I have such fond memories of setting off firecrackers with our Hindu neighbours, and also exchanging sweets during Diwali and Eid.

    Warm regards,




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