By Moign Khawaja
From the land of colours comes a festival that illuminates the lives of millions of people around the world. Diwali, the festival of lights, is one of the most popular festivals of South Asia, celebrated by followers of three major religions, i.e. the Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. Spanning over five days, this festival is a unique blend of worship, colours, lights, food, fireworks and clothes. It is the festival that is said to bring happiness and good luck in the lives of the elderly, young and children every year. Though regional variations change the theme of the festival and add more charm to it, it is overall a celebration of the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance.
Diwali comes from the ancient Indian language Sanskrit word Deepa wali which means row of lights (deepa – lamp, wali – row). Houses, shops, and public places are decorated with small earthenware oil lamps called diyas. The lamps, traditionally fueled by mustard oil, are placed in rows in windows, doors and outside buildings to decorate them.
Toys made of clay are sometimes used in puja (prayers) in Hindu temples. The beauty of this festival are the colours as well as the simplicity and originality.
Hindus honour Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth by worshipping her. People start the new business year at Diwali, and say their prayers to the goddess for a successful year. Some people build a small altar to the goddess and decorate it with money and with pictures of the rewards of wealth, such as cars and houses.
Diwali also celebrates the return of Lord Ram, with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana to Ayodhya after a 14 year exile, and a war in which he killed the evil and demonic king Ravan. It is believed that the people of Ayodhya, a holy town in Uttar Pradesh state, northern India, lit ghee lamps along the way to light their path in the darkness, hence introducing the Diwali tradition of lighting lamps.
Ravan was a mythical king of rakshasas (demons) with great supernatural power. He is said to have ruled Sri Lanka about 6,000 years ago. Hindu mythology depicts Ravan as a brutal king, kidnapping Ram’s wife Sita. Ram launched an invasion to rescue his wife and killed the Lankan king. Hindus set alight his effigies during the festival to mark the victory of good over evil.
The beautiful patterns drawn on the floor with colours are known as Rangoli. The most popular subject is the lotus flower, a sacred Hindu symbol. Rangoli is an expression of warmth and hospitality.
Diwali is tasteless without the sweets. In the picture you can see sweet orange circles called jalebi; white sweetmeat masses dotted with pistachio called barfi; yellow sweetmeat balls called laddu along with two glasses of special sweetened milk tea. The refreshments are consumed after saying prayers at the temple.
Unlike many religions and their festivals, Diwali is a vivid expression of colours and happiness that is portrayed through lively dances. People, especially young women wear colourful clothes, visit houses in the community and dance to Diwali music and songs.
As soon as the elders finish their puja (prayers), kids dressed in new clothes burst firecrackers heralding the defeat of the demon. This festival is very popular among children as they get new clothes, fireworks, food, sweets and lots of pocket money.
Magnificent fireworks culminate the festival of lights in a spectacular fashion. Thousands of people gather to watch the fireworks. People enjoy the festival in a family atmosphere without indulging themselves in alcohol and other intoxicants.
People flock to illuminated temples to offer their prayers and worship the Hindu gods and seek their blessings for the new year. Diwali marks the end of the harvest season in most of India. Farmers thank for the bounty of the year gone by, and pray for a good harvest for the upcoming year. Traditionally, the festival is the occasion when many businesses close their old accounts and open new ones. It is the last major celebration before winter.