The Festival of Lights This is one of the oldest Hindu festivals occuring in the month of Kartik, which commemorates the return of Rama to Ayodhya after an exile of 14 years.
It also marks the beginning of the new year and is celebrated with the lighting of lamps. Colourful rangoli adorns the doorway of homes Diwali or Deepawali, literally 'an array of lamps', is the festival of lights and is celebrated on the darkest night of Kartik. It is perhaps the most important festival in India. Originally a Hindu festival, it has now crossed the bounds of religion and is celebrated by all in India with fervor and gaiety. This day is a public holiday all over India. Diwali is also perhaps the oldest festival still celebrated today and is mentioned in the Ramayana. The celebrations include the lighting of lamps and candles, and the bursting of crackers. Friends and neighbours exchange special sweets. People buy new clothes and in fact, in certain communities, it is absolutely essential to wear new clothes on this day.
Diwali in India is equivalent to Christmas in the West. Therefore it is also the time when people get the festival bonus to their salaries. It marks the beginning of the new year for a large majority of Hindus, especially the trader community. Preparations for the festival begin many days prior to Diwali. It is time for a thorough cleaning of the house, for the belief is that Lakshmi will enter clean and nicely decorated houses. The scientific reason is that the monsoon is a time for insects and fungus to breed. With the end of the monsoon, homes need to be cleaned and painted, and belongings aired and dried before the onset of winter.
The festival itself extends over about a week even though the most important day is the new moonday. In east Bihar and northern India, two days before Diwali is celebrated as Dhanteras in honour of Dhanvantari, the physician of the gods. He is believed to have emerged with a pot of amrita during the samudra manthan. People bathe early in the morning and observe a fast, which is broken only after sunset with sweetmeats, puri and other delicacies. On Dhanteras, new kitchen utensils are bought and kept at the place of worship. The buying of utensils, according to one theory, relates to the myth of Dhanvantari emerging from the ocean with a pot in his hand. Since he is also the physician of the gods, cleanliness and hygiene are essential to this festival. The day before Diwali is celebrated as Choti Diwali or 'small Diwali'.
It is Diwali on a smaller scale, with fewer lights lit and fewer crackers burst. The morning after Choti Diwali, the women of the house make beautiful, coloured rangoli in the doorway and courtyard. Tiny footprints made out of rice paste are a special feature of the rangolis made for Diwali. They signify the footprints of Lakshmi, as she enters the house. In Hindu homes, Diwali celebrations involve a ritual puja to Lakshmi and also to Rama in the evening. Songs in honour of the gods are sung and arati is performed. Oil or ghee diyas are also lit. The gods are offered kheel, batashe and khilone and various sweetmeats.
After the puja, the diyas are placed in and around the house: in the doorway, near the Tulasi plant, the backyard, every room and the back and front gates. After this, crackers are burst, and people meet friends and neighbours to exchange good wishes and sweets. Since Diwali falls on the new moon night, lamps are lit to brighten this moonless night. According to a myth, Lakshmi will not enter a dark house. The lamps also welcome home the spirits of dead ancestors, who are believed to visit on this auspicious night. In addition, the light frightens away any evil spirit that might be wandering about near the house on this night.
In Orissa, lamps are lit to light up the dark path that celebrates the return of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana to Ayodhya after a 14- year exile. In modern times, ghee diyas have been replaced by wax candles and coloured electric bulbs. In many areas, there is a competition of sorts among neighbours as everyone tries to have the belief is that the crackers are an indication of the joy of the people living on the earth, making the gods aware of their plentiful state. Still another possible reason has amore scientific basis: the fumes produced by the crackers kill a lot of insects, found in plenty after the rains.The use of high-tech bomb crackers is fairly recent.
At times, Diwali celebrations get ugly, especially in the metropolitan cities. In New Delhi, people start bursting crackers in the evening and this continues till the early hours of the morning. As a result, the city is engulfed in toxic fumes and smoke for almost 10 hours. Another problem with crackers is that their manufacture is usually unregulated. As a result, the manufacturing units are unsafe and the material used is inflammable and toxic. Every year, many units are destroyed in accidental fires, resulting in the death of those employed there.
Kerala is probably the only state in India where even Hindus do not celebrate Diwali. The major festival there is Onam. In West Bengal, Kali Puja is performed on Diwali as it is believed that on this day Kali killed the wicked Raktavija. Being one of the main festivals of the trader community, markets are gaily decorated and lit up. Many safety measures and precautions are telecast on television and radio, especially for children. The fire departments are kept on the alert, and the municipal corporations of bigger cities also organise buckets and tankers of water at strategic locations. The second day after Diwali is celebrated as Bhai Duja when sisters apply tilak to their brothers and pray for their long and happy life.
In all likelihood, this ritual was originally intended only for married women. Sincethey celebrated Diwali with their in-laws, this festival allowed them to come to their parents' home during this auspicious time. They got some time t omeet the family and to rest after the hectic activity of the preceding week. And it gave their parents an opportunity to give them gifts, an opportunity they did not often get. Nowadays however,among many communities Bhai Duja is observed by both married and unmarried sisters.