India’s festival of lights

If there is one place that knows how to celebrate a festival, it is India. From grand city events to simple village melas (fairs), the country’s jam-packed festival calendar is as rich and diverse as its traditions and topography.

The star of the show, and one that travellers should not miss, is Diwali – a joyous celebration that, broadly speaking, celebrates the triumph of good over evil. The festival’s name roughly translates to “row of lamps” – which is why Diwali is widely known as the festival of lights.

It takes place over a period of five days on auspicious dates during the end of Ashvin/start of Kartika – the Hindu lunar calendar months that equate to the Gregorian calendar months of October and November. In 2012, the festival begins on 13 November.

This national Hindu festival is also embraced by other religious denominations, including the Sikhs and Jains, with religious and regional variations in the way it is celebrated. For Jains, Diwali signifies the attainment of moksha (liberation from the cycle of life and death) by Mahavira (the 6th-century founder of Jainism’s central tenets). For Sikhs, Diwali denotes the 1619 release of Guru Hargobind (the sixth of Sikhism’s 10 gurus), along with 52 others, who had been detained in the Gwalior Fort in the state of Madhya Pradesh by the Mughal emperor Jehangir.

For Hindus, India’s major religious community, Diwali commemorates the victory of Lord Rama (King of Ayodhya, according to sacred Hindu texts, and also a prominent deity) over Ravana (a powerful demon) and Rama’s triumphant return to the kingdom after a period of exile. Keen to make the Lord’s homecoming as swift and safe as possible, his jubilant subjects illuminated the way with masses of twinkling diyas (earthenware oil lamps). It is for this reason the lighting of diyas has become a key component of the Diwali festival.

It also symbolises the replacement of darkness (ignorance) with inner light – garnered via the pursuit of knowledge and spiritual practices. Indeed, spirituality lies at the heart of Diwali, with devotees specifically seeking blessings from two prominent Hindu deities: Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of good fortune and auspicious beginnings. Worshippers pray for prosperity and well being for the year that lies ahead, with fireworks and firecrackers proffering plenty of raucous razzle-dazzle when devotional formalities come to a close.

While the festival undeniably takes centre stage, there is a particularly distinct air of ebullience – and fervent preparation – in the lead up to Diwali. Houses and shops are given a rigorous spring clean before being lovingly decorated with fairy lights, patterned lanterns and colourful rangolis/kolams (propitious rice-paste/powder/chalk designs that adorn the thresholds). The streets teem with shoppers keenly stocking up on everything from fancy new clothes and festive household decorations, to gifts for family, friends and business acquaintances.

The most popular gift is mithai (Indian sweets), and shops are filled with a spectacular array specially prepared for this festival, from thickly cut squares of barfi (a fudge-like sweet, often coated with a thin film of edible silver leaf) , to soft syrupy gulab jamuns (deep-fried balls of dough) and spongy rasgullas (sweetened cream cheese balls flavoured with rose water). Indeed, if there is ever a time to experience India at its sweet – and convivial – best, it is during Diwali.