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Diwali is the quintessential Indian festival, celebrated with the same fun and fervour throughout the length and breadth of the country. In modern times, the bang of crackers resound in all the Indian states and the diyas and lamps are a must-have for all household, irrespective of region. However, there are some small differences in the rites and rituals, which serve to emphasize the distinct identity of the particular region. And, of course, being true to Indian mythology, the story of the origin of Diwali is different in each of the regions. It's the eternal "triumph of good over evil" story, retold in many fascinating ways.Read on about the multiple facets of a single festival.
There's not much different about Diwali celebrations in Orissa. Rows of oil lamps, candles and lanterns adorn the thresholds of houses. Crackers are burst, sweetmeats relished and distributed. It could be akin to Diwali anywhere else in India, save for one small ritual. It is a ritual that calls upon the spirits of the family's forefathers. Jute stems are burnt to light up the dark path that the spirits of the ancestors take back to heaven.
All the members of the household gather together just after dusk. A rangoli of a sailboat is made on the ground. The boat has seven chambers. Over the drawing of each different chamber several items are kept - cotton, mustard, salt, asparagus root, turmeric and a wild creeper. Over the central chamber are the offerings meant for prasad. Perched over the prasad is a jute stem with a cloth wick tied around the edge. It is lit at the beginning of the puja. All members of the family hold a bundle of jute stems in their hands. Lighting their respective bundles from the flame on the rangoli, they raise them skywards chanting:
"Bada badua ho,
andhaara re aasa,
aluwa re jaa.
Baaisi pahaacha re gada gadau tha."
Loosely translated, it means, "O forefathers, come to us in this dark evening, we light your way to heaven. May you attain salvation on the 22 steps (of the Jagannath temple of Puri)."
Beside the rangoli, a mortar and pestle and a plough are also kept and worshipped.
After the puja and offerings, the family celebrates Diwali by bursting crackers. As in other regions, most people prefer to celebrate it in their own homes, though family gatherings are also common. Most houses are brightly lit, with the doors and windows kept open as Lakshmi is supposed to visit every home, and you can't afford to leave it dark and abandoned.
In West Bengal, it is not Lakshmi puja but Kali Puja which makes the celebrities unique. Kali is generally a goddess to be feared rather than venerated. Legend has it that she kept aloof from the other gods, so she appeared dark in color (hence her name?). There are several myths and legends surrounding Kali. A popular story relates how, when she observed corruption and evil in society, she got into a terrible rage, and was bent upon destroying humanity. As she went on the warpath, weapons in her four hands, a garland of skulls around her neck, killing everyone she came across, the gods got worried and decided she must be stopped. Shiva lay down in her path, but intent upon destruction, she didn't notice until she actually stepped on him. And then, in the shock of realisation, she stuck her tongue out, and that is how she is always portrayed: one foot on a prone Shiva, tongue sticking out, skulls around her neck, weapons in her hands.
In the far eastern corners of the country too, Diwali is celebrated with great enthusiasm. In Assam, it is a time for gaiety and feasting. The houses are decorated and lit with diyas. Two or maybe even four plantain leaves decorate the entry to the house or property, with a row of diyas at the doorstep. The entire family gathers round for Lakshmi puja in the evening. Diwali stretches over three days, but on Amavasya the final day, the celebrations and lights are less. The first two days are important, with feasting, drinking, gambling, family gatherings, lights and fire crackers occupying time from dusk to dawn. Diwali is a popular festival here: everyone celebrates, even Muslims and Christians. Mainly the festive air, not by material goods, marks the occasion. No new clothes, no new utensils, no new gold. In fact nothing new at all on Diwali day, as all the shops are shut tight except those selling sweets and fire crackers. Gifts are limited to sweets and dry fruits.
In the North, Diwali festivities start at Dussera! From then on, as people set out on a frantic spree of shopping, spring-cleaning, whitewashing and redecorating, the shops and market places embark on a frenzy of sales and promotional offers. Market places are festooned with streamers; melas and fairs crop up everywhere. Many people buy new clothes to wear on Diwali, and on the day of Dhanteras, traditionally, a kitchen utensil of some kind is purchased.
On Diwali day, shops remain open till the afternoon, believing that good sales on Diwali day predict a prosperous year ahead. In the corporate sector, the process of buying and distributing Diwali gifts begins several days before the big day, and slowly picks up pace. Sweets and dry fruits are the most common gifts, as are silver coins. But gifts also range from silver dishes and other household gifts to suit pieces.
Cities get crowded with shoppers and shopping bonanzas. Around every street corner can be found the temporary stages for holding the Ramlila - a dramatic rendition of the story of the Ramayan, which continues for several evenings, culminating in the defeat of Evil (Ravanna) by Good (Ram).
Houses are decorated and a Lakshmi puja is organised. Often the women of the house do "aarti" to their husbands, garlanding him and putting a "tika" on him, while praying for his long life. In some houses, there is a ritual of immersing a silver coin in a tumbler of milk. The milk is then sprinkled lightly in the rooms of the house. Prashad is kept in front of the idol throughout the night.
In Himachal, every indoor corner of the house is lit up carefully, and a large diya, bigger than usual, is kept in the temple or puja place and is guarded all night through. In Bihar and UP, it is not always one large diya, but four smaller ones, intricately shaped, which surround the puja place and the women of the house sit guard all night to ensure they do not go out. Even the diyas placed outside, around the house are jealously guarded and re-lit at once, if the wind puts them out.
Some of the Diwali specialties made are: "patandas" - like dosa like but made of flour and eaten with shakkar (jaggery powder) and ghee; "askloo" - pakodas made out of rice atta and eaten with either shakkar ghee or chutney; "poodas" or "mal poohas"-- which are made of flour and sugar syrup and eaten with a chutney.
In Himachal, as in parts of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi, gambling with cards picks up and reaches a peak the night of Diwali.
On the fourth day of Diwali, Govardhan Puja is performed. In temples, the deities are given a milk bath, then dressed in splendid garments and adorned with diamonds, pearls, rubies and other gems. After the prayers sweets are offered to the deities as "bhog" and then the devotees approach and take Prasad.
Although traditionally Diwali is not celebrated by the Sikhs, they do participate in the festival to the extent of making a trip to the Gurudwara, and then lighting candles in the evenings and letting off fire crackers as well.
Deepavali in the south is celebrated in the Tamil month of aipasi (thula month) 'naraka chaturdasi' thithi, preceding amavasai. The preparations begin the day before, when the oven is cleaned, smeared with lime, four or five kumkum dots are applied, and then it is filled with water for the next day's oil bath. The house is washed and decorated with kolam (rangoli) patterns with kavi (red oxide). In the pooja room, betel leaves, betel nuts, plaintain fruits, flowers, sandal paste, kumkum, gingelly oil, turmeric powder, scented powder is kept. Crackers and new dresses are placed in a plate after smearing a little kumkum or sandal paste.
The day begins with everyone in the family taking an oil bath before sunrise, a custom arising from a belief that having an oil bath in the morning on the day of deepavali is equivalent to taking bath in the Ganges. Before the bath, elders in the house apply gingelly oil on the heads of the younger members. For those hailing from Tanjore, the custom is to first take a small quantity of deepavali lehiyam (medicinal, ayurvedic paste) after the oil bath and then have breakfast. Often sweets are eaten after wearing new clothes. In almost all houses, items like ukkarai, velli appam, idly, chutney, sambhar, omapudi, boondhi are prepared. For lunch, jangri, pathir peni, or one variety of the poli are made.
Crackers are usually burst only after the bath. Meanwhile, kuthu vilaku (oil lamp) is lit in the pooja room. Mats or wooden planks are placed facing east. After naivedhya (offering to the Gods) of the items, a plaintain fruit is given to each member of the family followed by betel leaves and betel nuts. Those who have to perform 'pithru tharpanam' will have a second bath perform the tharpanam and don't eat rice at night.
Among the usual diwali customs and rituals, is the extra special, once-in-a-life event: The first diwali after marriage. In Tamil Nadu, it is celebrated as Thalai Deepavali.
During Thalai Deepavali, the newly weds go to the bride's parental home for revelry. The day starts very early, around 3.30 - 4 in the morning, with the ritual of the early morning oil bath. The music of Nadaswaram and Mrudangam floats on the fresh morning air. After the bath the bride and groom accept their new clothes, kept at the feet of God and also the Lehiyam (a form of medicine). Taking blessings from the elders, they burst the first crackers of the day. Usually a vast range of crackers is bought, with costs running into thousands of rupees.
The celebrations include a visit to the temple, gifts of clothes and jewellery, gorging on sweets and receiving blessings of elders. The groom's parents, brothers and sisters come down to join in the celebrations.
The markets liven up almost a whole month in advance for Diwali shoppers; from Jewellery; clothes; sweets; gift articles; shoes; etc to fire crackers; every thing is in demand and plentiful supply. It's a mad frenzy of shopping everywhere, in the days leading up to the festival.
Gujaratis start celebrations on the night before diwali by creating designs - usually depicting nature or the gods - from natural powder colors in our verandas. These are called "rangoli" and are supposed to welcome Goddess Lakshmi to the house. In a way they are a means of competition and pride amongst their creators. Also, small footprints are drawn with rice flour and vermilion powder all over the houses.
Diwali-day clothes are usually Jhabba(kurta)-dhotis or Jhabba-legengas for the men, while the women are in saris. A visit to the temple is customary. The day is spent preparing food and - have course - sweets. Shops are open, but business comes to a halt on Dhanteras, two days before Diwali, and doesn't resume until Labh Pancham, the fifth day of the new year. For traders and businessmen, this is the time for a vacation. Many establishments and shops perform puja on the accounts books for the next year (known as "Chopda Pujan"). The priests who bless the books and perform the puja do so at special mahurat.
Diwali evening is celebrated by lighting up streets and markets, and bursting crackers, etc. Often the fire works carry on way beyond midnight and sometimes they don't stop till the cockcrows!
For the last 10 - 12 years, there has been a one-day gap between Diwali and New Year - perhaps that's to cool off the excitement over the crackers! This day is called a "Dhoko"(betrayal).
The next day is the New Year. The old give the younger ones some small gifts for touching their feet and taking their blessings. Again, the shopkeepers keep their shops open but do not do business. Instead they socialise amongst their business circles. Some offer sweets, some silver!
Day three is called Bhai Bij. It's the day when brothers unite with their sisters. The sisters come to their bhaiyya's houses to have a party; lunch, dinner. In return, the bhaiyyas give money to their behnas. The next day is a day of rest.
Day Five is Labh Pancham. This is the day of Laxmi - the day to resume business. On the full moon next, we celebrate "Dev Diwali" i.e. the day when gods celebrate their diwali. It is also the day of "Tulsi Vivah" (Marriage of Tulsi) in a mandap of sugarcane.