Deepavali – or Diwali – as is commonly uttered – literally means rows of lamps. These lamps light up houses all over the country, but for different reasons.

In West Bengal, it is time to worship Kali, the goddess with the fearsome strength, and in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh it is time to remember Dhanvantari, the divine physician. To some, the lights are a reminder of the return of Rama to his home after 16 years of exile.

Deepavali: Festival of Lights
Deepavali: Festival of Lights [Illustrations by Anup Singh, Sudheer Nath, Shiju George]
But clearly, it is goddess Lakshmi, who remains a dazzling presence in the minds of people all over the country. Who wouldn’t want to persuade the goddess of wealth to smile kindly upon them? And, being a festival that invokes a spirit of goodwill much like Christmas, it is celebrated by people from all communities today.

The festival of lights is celebrated throughout the country on Amavasya, the darkest night of the month at the end of Ashwin or the beginning of Kartik. Ashwin and Kartik are the months in the Hindu calendar that correspond to days in the months of September, October and November in the Roman calendar.

Spring cleaning in autumn

It literally is spring-cleaning in autumn. The preparations for Diwali begin many days in advance as houses get a new coat of whitewash or paint, in anticipation of a visit by the chief guest – goddess Lakshmi, whose benign gaze translates into prosperity.

The real reason for the sudden accent on cleaning houses is linked to the season that Diwali falls in – autumn. The monsoon season that precedes autumn is a time for insects and fungus to breed. The end of this season means that homes must be cleaned and painted, and belongings aired and dried before the onset of winter.

The festival of Diwali carries on for five days, and each day has a specific significance for a specific part of India, with different gods being worshipped for different reasons.

The main or ‘badi’ (big) Diwali falls on the third day, and has been reserved for unlimited fun – new clothes, mouthwatering eats and firecrackers though, over the years the last element of fun has proved to be a problem at various levels.

Bihar Worships the Divine Physician

In east Bihar and the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, people celebrate Dhanteras on the first day, in remembrance of the legend of Dhanvantari, the physician of gods,
who is believed to have emerged with a pot of ‘amrit’ or nectar, during the ‘samudra manthan’ or the churning of the ocean when the gods and the demons fought with each other. So cleanliness and hygiene are an essential aspect of this day.

An early morning bath and fast are a part of the daytime ritual. At sunset, the fast is broken with a vengeance, with sweetmeats, ‘puris’ and other delicacies. Women buy gold and silver and new utensils as part of the ritual.

This is followed by Lakshmi puja in the evening. A special feature of this puja is the lighting of tiny lamps of clay.

‘Chhoti’ or the ‘small’ Diwali

The day before Diwali is celebrated as Narka-Chaturdashi in Uttar Pradesh, what is popularly known as Chhoti or small Diwali. It is Diwali on a smaller scale, with fewer lights lit and fewer crackers burst.

Lakshmi’s Footprints on the Big Day

The morning after Chhoti Diwali, women of the house make beautiful, coloured rangoli in the doorway and courtyard. Tiny footprints made of rice-paste are made on the floors, at the entrance to houses. They signify the footprints of Lakshmi, as she enters the house.

It is the day of the main puja, when Lakshmi is believed to have emerged from the ‘samudra manthan’ during this day. A ritual puja to Lakshmi and Rama are an integral part of the celebrations in north India.

Since Diwali falls on the new moon night, lamps are lit to brighten the moonless night. The lamps also welcome home the spirits of dead ancestors, who are believed to visit on this auspicious night. Houses glow inside and out on Diwali nights.

In recent times, coloured electric bulbs have also taken their place alongside earthen lamps in adorning houses and buildings on the outside, while candles and diyas light up the interiors. There’s intense competition among neighbours as everyone tries to have the brightest lights.

Sweet festival

One practice followed in Tamil Nadu perhaps sums up the Diwali spirit. Everyone knows a festival is meant for eating and overeating. So while members of a family might scale new heights in wolfing sweets through the day, largely due to visits to friends and relatives, there is a spoonful of ‘Diwali marandhu’ (Diwali medicine) that is reserved for the night. A digestive, it is meant to keep the stomach on course for the next day and the next!

In the north there are special sweets offered to gods first and then to friends and relatives, such as ‘kheel’ and ‘batashe’, which are sugar-based sweets.

The real fun

In fact the real fun of Diwali begins late in the evenings. The noise at the first burst of crackers signals the ushering in of the most eagerly-awaited part of Diwali – the fireworks display. Whether adults or children, most people enjoy bursting crackers. This goes on well past midnight.

But the pollution levels that are created after a night of uninhibited cracker bursting, are making people think twice before exploding a whole lot of crackers. As also the guilty realisation by many that their objects of enjoyment are prepared by young child workers in exploitative and dangerous conditions.

Gambling for the goddess’ favour

In north India, casinos and gambling houses do roaring business during the Diwali week. People invite friends and relatives over at nights, and play cards well unto early morning, especially among the trader communities for whom this is the biggest festival of the year, and an opportunity to worship Lakshmi the goddess of wealth in a way that she smiles at them.

This ‘prasad’ is non-veg!

In West Bengal, Diwali is known by another name – Kali puja. It is believed that goddess Kali, the fiercer version of Durga, and a symbol of strength killed the wicked demon, Raktavija on this day. Goats are sacrificed in the goddess’s name and devotees are offered cooked meat as part of the prasad or offering of the gods, at midnight.

The origins of Kali puja in West Bengal can be traced to over 100 years ago. During the freedom struggle of Indians against British rule, Kali was a favourite with young revolutionaries, for she is known as the goddess with a volatile and fierce nature who gives vent to her fury to avenge evil. This goddess with a probable tribal origin was a more exciting role model than the staid, peaceful goddesses of the Hindu pantheon.

Fourth day: Govardhan puja or Mountain that became an Umbrella

The fourth is the day of Goverdhan puja. Lord Krishna is believed to have saved his worshippers from getting drowned by a deluge by lifting up the Goverdhan mountain and holding it over them like an umbrella. It is performed in the north where Rama and Krishna are widely worshipped.

Oh brother!

Diwali culminates with Bhai Duj in the north, also known as Bhav Bhij in Maharashtra and Bhai Phonta in West Bengal. Legends say that on this day Yamraj, the god of death visited his sister Yami on this day. They exchanged gifts as a token of love and since then it has become a custom for brothers to visit their sisters and celebrate Bhai Duj.

A festival for all, as far back
as Mughal emperor Akbar

Rituals and beliefs apart, Diwali has come to be celebrated by people from all communities in India for the sheer sense of enjoyment that it imparts. More than 400 years ago, Mughal emperor Akbar started the tradition of celebrating Diwali in his court.

His aim was to come closer to the people of his empire. He ordered that decorated lamps be placed in front of the statues of gods like Lakshmi and Rama. The Mughal kings gave the name Jashn-e-Chiraghan (Festival of Lights) to the festival.

The Business-like Diwali of big cities

It is quite a Diwali. In the big cities the festival has become an occasion to pass on ‘gifts’ that might otherwise be seen as a bribe or an attempt to influence. So, for anyone wanting desperately seeking favour with someone, be it a businessman, a government servant, a corporate executive, a public relations agent or a journalist, Diwali comes as a godsend.

For about a week before Diwali, junior employees can be seen carrying loads of dry fruit packets or sweets or silver coins and utensils or chocolates or even bedsheets across the length and breadth of the city.

Their job is to reach these gifts to the people their bosses want to find favour with. It’s easy to spot them. They run around with bloodshot eyes and a worn out face that widens into a tired smile just as the door opens.

Less fun, more show

At a general level, just as weddings have become occasions for a lavish show of wealth, Diwali, too, has acquired too much gloss with people outdoing each other in the size of their gifts, their crackers and their lighting. It has become a rich man’s festival.

A pity, because it was never meant to be a festival of rivalry. Perhaps it is time to understand the message of the simple clay lamp whose light burns as luminously, if not more, than the electric bulb.