Each year, on the night of October’s new moon, Indian families across the globe come together to celebrate the most sacred of all Hindu festivals, as important to the Western world as Christmas and New Year combined. Symbolic of the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness, Diwali gives Hindus an opportunity to cast out the negative energy from the passing year and welcome in a fresh start.
My family is no different - it’s always been a golden day for us. Twenty-five years ago, my parents made a difficult choice when they decided to immigrate to Australia, leaving behind five generations of family, a successful business, and a luxurious lifestyle in South Africa. Most importantly, they were also leaving behind a country in turmoil. But it wasn’t easy starting from scratch without the support of our community. My parents struggled every single day to give my siblings and I a better life - every day except one. A day with beautiful traditions that stem from a captivating legend:
The Ramayana, one of Hinduism's holy books, sets the scene for Diwali. (This variation of the legend is from northern India, where my ancestors are from.) The story starts with the second wife of King Dasharatha, Kaikeyi. Jealous that her son Bharata would never rule as second-in-line, she called upon a favour the King owed her, asking that he banish his first son, Rama, to a dark and dangerous forest for 14 years. Respecting his father's orders, and following what he believed to be his destiny, Rama left the palace, accompanied by his wife and youngest brother. Unfortunately for Kaikeyi, her plan backfired - the King soon died of heartbreak, and Bharata did not ascend the throne, instead acting as Regent while awaiting Rama’s return. Meanwhile in the forest, Rama’s wife was kidnapped by the demon King Ravana. After an epic battle, he eventually vanquished the demon and rescued her - in doing so, he fulfilled his destiny and proved himself worthy of the throne. The people were joyful at hearing news of his victory (revered as the “perfect human”, he was loved by his entire kingdom), and in preparation of his return they lit thousands of glittering lamps to help him find his way back home. The celebrations continued with feasting and sweets - and so began the festival of Diwali.
Modern-day Indians celebrate in much the same way. In South Africa, we would invite the whole family over for a firework display, my brother lighting the smaller skyrockets and running for it as they blasted off behind him, and Dad taking charge of the catherine wheels, spinning their vibrant fire to the backdrop of our squeals and applause. I was so scared of the loud pop-pop-popping, hiding behind my mother's skirt to peek at the pretty colours - but I wasn't shy when it came to the sweets. Decadent confections made of condensed milk, sugar, ghee, nuts and spices left me with a fat pot-belly protruding ridiculously from my skinny, typically Indian frame. Sadly, I couldn't eat them all. Mum would wrap plates of the delicious treats in cellophane paper and ribbon - and my sister and I in brand new party frocks (you can't start a new year without new clothes!). We would visit our relatives, stopping at each house to “sweeten their mouths” over a cup of tea, and then be off again, on what seemed to be an endless day of velveteen lounges and cheek pinches. (This custom of giving sweets is practiced at most Hindu celebrations. It is a symbol of blessing, and aims to sweeten the bonds of relationships.) We would return home in time for dusk, lighting candles in each room and along the driveway, as our ancestors did all those years ago.
Even today, an ocean apart from our family in South Africa, my siblings and I gather at our parents’ home to celebrate. Mum still buys us gifts of clothes to wear on the day - thankfully, they aren’t as frilly as the ones we donned as kids! We light sparklers in the garden and twirl them around, creating shapes in the dark of night, all five of us laughing at each other like little children. Retreating back inside to the kitchen, the heart of the family home, we chat around the table while mum fusses with the food. Finally, after a small prayer to welcome in good fortune for the new year, we feast on all our favourite vegetarian dishes and sweets. You’ll find a small selection of these recipes below - go on, tuck in!
Note: These recipes have been adapted by South-Africans over time, and are different to typical Indian cuisine. For example, gulab jamun, sponge-y dumplings served in a bowl of rose syrup, are instead oval-shaped cakes, lightly tossed in sugar syrup for finishing and served dry.
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Photography by Alan Benson. Styling by Michelle Noerianto. Food preparation by Nick Banbury.