Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights and one of India’s most important celebrations, is just around the corner (this year it falls on October 18) and people all across India and the rest of the globe are already making preparations! Throughout this week and the next, the celebratory mood is sure to intensify until it reaches its peak on Diwali itself. If you’ve been invited to spend time with Indian friends who are celebrating the holiday, or are planning to be in India while the festivities are going on, here’s everything you need to know about celebrating India’s spectacular Festival of Lights!
What’s the story?
Many different stories from Hindu mythology play a part in Diwali, but the holiday revolves largely around two key figures from Hindu lore: Lord Rama and Lord Krishna. While both are blue, don’t mistake them for the same god! Ancient tales speak of the return of Lord Rama, along with his wife and brother, to their homeland after being in exile for 14 years. In order to light the path for Rama to return home successfully, villagers put out lights to help him along the way. Diwali also celebrates the triumph of good over evil, and Lord Krishna’s story details his victory over the vile demon Narakasura after which he declared that the day be full of festivities.
How do you prepare?
Indian families spend a lot of time getting ready for the Festival of Lights. In preparation for Diwali it is common practice to do some serious Spring cleaning (albeit in October) so the home is spotless and ready for the main celebration days. It’s also customary to wear new clothes on Diwali, so people turn out to do some major shopping (in fact it’s one of the times of the year where stores in India make huge profits). From clothes, to jewelry, Indians love to look their finest for the holiday and you should too. A nice kurta will work well for both men and women—and ladies you can spice up your outfits with some tasteful jewelry and a matching dupatta!
Why the lights?
Like the villagers who put out lights to guide Lord Rama back to his homeland, Indians decorate their homes and businesses with a multitude of bright lights to symbolize the journey as well as the triumph of light over darkness. This is why in the weeks leading up to Diwali you will probably see buildings and homes bedecked with electric lights. On Diwali itself households will light oil lamps and set them at the entrances to their abodes and around their homes.
What do you eat?
Like most important celebrations in any culture, Diwali festivities are famous for the enormous quantities of delicious foods people consume. Diwali Eve is usually marked by a large meal, but it’s the mithai, or sweets that really represent the celebration. Be prepared to eat a lot of sweets because during the Festival of Lights friends, family, and neighbors get together to exchange boxes of sugary goodness. If you’ve been invited to participate in Diwali celebrations, it might be a good idea to carry along a couple of boxes of tasty treats to gift to your hosts. Ladoos, barfis, pedas, and jalebis are all great options, although you can find some sweet boxes with dried fruits, chocolates, and other fare as well.
What else happens?
Besides all the lamp-lighting, sweet-eating, and clothes shopping, there’s a few other activities that mark Diwali celebrations. On Diwali Eve people usually turn out into the streets to set off firecrackers and sparklers. Due to India’s congested cities and huge population, this can lead to a lot of racket and pollution, so avoid taking part in this portion of the Festival of Lights if you can. In some parts of India people burn effigies of the demon king in celebration, which can be an interesting cultural experience. Many Hindus also take part in pujas, or religious prayers—usually throughout the 5 days of Diwali festivities. Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity, is one of the main deities worshipped in the pujas, although many other gods and goddesses are also recipients of these prayers and religious ceremonies. The Diwali pujas can vary drastically depending on the customs and practices of individual groups, or where you are in India, so if you are invited to join in just go with the flow and be respectful of whatever beliefs your hosts subscribe to.
Have you celebrated Diwali before? What are some of your favorite things about the holiday?