Also known as Deepavali, this is a Hindu religious festival of lights and is one of the most important festivals within Hinduism. The festival usually lasts five days, or six in some regions of India, and is celebrated during the Hindu lunisolar month between mid-October and mid-November. One of the most popular festivals of Hinduism, Diwali symbolises the spiritual ‘victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance’. The festival is widely associated with Lakshmi, their goddess of prosperity and Ganesha, their god of wisdom and the remover of obstacles, with many other regional traditions connecting the holiday to several Hindu gods and goddesses. In the lead-up to Deepavali, celebrants prepare by cleaning, renovating, and decorating their homes and workplaces with diyas (oil lamps) and rangolis (colourful art circle patterns). During Diwali, people wear their finest clothes, illuminate the interior and exterior of their homes with diyas and rangoli, perform worship ceremonies of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and wealth, light fireworks, and partake in family feasts, where mithai (sweets) and gifts are shared. Originally a Hindu festival, Diwali has transcended religious lines and is also celebrated by Jains and Sikhs and is now a major cultural event for the Hindu, Sikh, and Jain peoples. The five-day long festival originated in the Indian subcontinent and is mentioned in early Sanskrit texts. Diwali is usually celebrated twenty days after the Hindu festival Vijayadashami, with Dhanteras, or the regional equivalent, marking the first day of the festival when celebrants prepare by cleaning their homes and making decorations on the floor, such as rangolis. There are then different festivities for each day, for example the third day is the day of ‘Lakshmi Puja’ and the darkest night of the traditional month. Some Hindu communities mark the last day as Bhai Dooj or the regional equivalent, which is dedicated to the bond between sister and brother, whilst other Hindu and Sikh craftsmen communities mark this day as Vishwakarma Puja and observe it by performing maintenance in their work spaces and offering prayers. Diwali festivities include a celebration of sights, sounds, arts and flavours, but the festivities vary between different regions. ’Diwali’ is from the Sanskrit ‘dīpāvali’ meaning ‘row or series of lights’. The term is derived from the Sanskrit words ‘dīpa’, meaning lamp, light, lantern, candle, that which glows, shines, illuminates or knowledge and ‘āvali’, a row, range, continuous line, series. The five-day celebration is observed every year in early autumn after the conclusion of the summer harvest. It coincides with the new moon and is deemed the darkest night of the Hindu lunisolar calendar. The festivities begin two days before ‘amāvasyā’, on Dhanteras, and extend two days after, on the second day of the month of Kartik. The darkest night is the apex of the celebration and coincides with the second half of October or early November in the Gregorian calendar. The festival climax is on the third day and is called the main Diwali. It is an official holiday in a dozen countries, whilst the other festive days are regionally observed as either public or optional restricted holidays in India. In historical terms, the Diwali festival is likely a fusion of harvest festivals in ancient India. King Harsha refers to Deepavali in the 7th century Sanskrit play ‘Nagananda’ as ‘Dīpapratipadotsava’, where ‘dīpa’ = light, ‘pratipadā’ = first day and ‘utsava’ = festival, where lamps were lit and newly engaged brides and grooms received gifts. Diwali was also described by numerous travellers from outside India. In his 11th century memoir on India, the Persian traveler and historian Al Biruni wrote of Deepavali being celebrated by Hindus on the day of the New Moon in the month of Kartika. The Venetian merchant and traveler Niccolò de’ Conti visited India in the early 15th-century and wrote in his memoir, “on another of these festivals they fix up within their temples, and on the outside of the roofs, an innumerable number of oil lamps… which are kept burning day and night” and that the families would gather, “clothe themselves in new garments”, sing, dance and feast. The 16th-century Portuguese traveler Domingo Paes wrote of his visit to the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire, where ‘Dipavali’ was celebrated in October with householders illuminating their homes, and their temples, with lamps. Publications from the British colonial era also made mention of Diwali, such as the note on Hindu festivals published in 1799 by Sir William Jones, a philologist known for his early observations on Sanskrit and Indo-European languages.
Many Hindus associate the festival with goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and wife of Vishnu but the Hindus of eastern India associate the festival with the goddess Kali, who symbolises the victory of good over evil. Hindus from the Braj region in northern India, parts of Assam, as well as southern Tamil and Telugu communities view Diwali as the day the god Krishna overcame and destroyed the evil demon king Narakasura, in yet another symbolic victory of knowledge and good over ignorance and evil. Trade and merchant families and others also offer prayers to Saraswati, who to them embodies music, literature and learning and to Kubera, who symbolises book-keeping, treasury and wealth management. In western states such as Gujarat, and certain northern Hindu communities of India, the festival of Diwali signifies the start of a new year. Mythical tales shared on Diwali vary widely depending on region and even within Hindu tradition, yet all share a common focus on righteousness, self-inquiry and the importance of knowledge. It is thought that the telling of these tales are reminiscent of the Hindu belief that good ultimately triumphs over evil.
During the season of Diwali, numerous rural townships and villages host melas, or fairs, where local producers and artisans trade produce and goods. A variety of entertainments are usually available for inhabitants of the local community to enjoy. The women, in particular, adorn themselves in colourful attire and decorate their hands with henna. Such events are also mentioned in Sikh historical records. Nowadays ‘Diwali mela’ are held at colleges, universities, campuses or as community events. At such times a variety of music, dance and arts performances, food, crafts, and cultural celebrations are featured. Economically, Diwali marks a major shopping period in India and is comparable to the Christmas period in terms of consumer purchases and economic activity. It is traditionally a time when households purchase new clothing, home refurbishments, gifts, gold, jewellery, and other large purchases particularly as the festival is dedicated to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity, and such purchases are considered auspicious. Many consider Diwali to be one of the major festivals where rural Indians spend a significant portion of their annual income, and is a means for them to renew their relationships and social networks. Other goods that are bought in substantial quantities during Diwali include confectionery and fireworks. Stock markets like NSE and BSE in India are typically closed during Diwali, with the exception of a Diwali Muhurat trading session for an hour in the evening to coincide with the beginning of the new year. Sadly however there have been issues at this festive time, as the use of fireworks also causes an increase in the number of burn injuries in India during Diwali. One particular firework called an ‘anar’ (fountain) has been found to be responsible for 65% of such injuries, with adults being the typical victims. Thankfully, most of the injuries sustained are only minor burns requiring outpatient care. In addition, concern has been raised in the use of firecrackers on Diwali increasing the concentration of dust and pollutants in the air. After firing, the fine dust particles get settled on the surrounding surfaces which can affect the environment and in turn, put people’s health at stake.
However, here in Leicester the celebration of Diwali is one of the biggest outside of India with everything from dance, fireworks, food and fashion making it the perfect place to enjoy Diwali. The festival began with the city’s famous lights switch-on on Sunday 9 October and culminated with a glorious fireworks display and entertainment on Diwali Day, Monday 24 October. There were also a wide selection of events taking place around the city during the fortnight including a Diwali Mela Bazaar, Rangoli exhibition and waterside celebrations. The festivities began with the illumination of the Diwali lights along Belgrave Road, on Leicester’s ‘Golden Mile’, on Sunday 9 October. Up to 40,000 people watched the lights switch on, which followed a vibrant programme of music and dance on the Belgrave Road stage, presented by the Leicester Hindu Festival Council and Leicester City Council. The stage programme for Diwali lights switch-on ran from 5.30pm to 8pm on Belgrave Road with the lights turned on at 7.30pm followed by the fireworks, which this year could be viewed from Belgrave Road. The Diwali Village on Cossington Street Recreation Ground featured a full stage programme showcasing local talent, children’s fun-fair rides and stalls including food and concessions, from 3pm to 9pm.
The Golden Mile is bathed in light throughout the festive period until Diwali Day, when the celebrations continue with events on Cossington Street Recreation Ground. On Diwali Day, Monday 24 October, the Diwali Village was again be on Cossington Street Recreation ground from 3pm along with a full stage programme of entertainment at 6pm presented by the Leicester Hindu Festival Council. This year Leicester’s Wheel of Light returns. The big wheel will be located on Belgrave Road from Friday 7 October to Sunday 6 November.
There is more that can be written about the individual events associated with Diwali but they are too much to be detailed here. Suffice it to say I hope you have all had a happy Diwali and look forward to the next ‘firework’ event which is of course November 5th!
This week… a White Elephant.
White elephants were once considered highly sacred creatures in Thailand and the animal even graced the national flag until 1917, but they were also wielded as a subtle form of punishment. According to legend, if an underling or rival angered a Siamese king, the royal might present the unfortunate man with the gift of a white elephant. While ostensibly a reward, the creatures were tremendously expensive to feed and house, and caring for one often drove the recipient into financial ruin. Whether any specific rulers actually bestowed such a passive-aggressive gift is uncertain, but the term has since come to refer to any burdensome possession, pachyderm or otherwise.
Don’t forget, for those here in the UK, our clocks go back an hour at 2:00am on Sunday morning. Enjoy the extra hour!