I’d be a fan of the Hindu festival of Diwali just for the lights – especially when they come in the form of fireworks. Add sweets, new clothes and family reunions, and you’ve got a festival that absolutely anyone can enjoy – and really should, whether or not you happen to be an adherent of one of the religions that celebrate it.
Diwali, or Deepavali as it’s known in the south, takes place on Sunday October 30 this year (some, including my relatives, mark it on 29th, and there are other variants too). As well as Hindus, it’s celebrated by Sikhs, Jains and apparently some Buddhists, reflecting the substantial religious diversity of India. But it’s the kind of festival that anyone can participate in, whether you’re in India or here in Australia.
I’ve always loved lights, be they chandeliers, fairy, neon or even lava. As a baby, I used to point at the ones on the ceiling and say “ight” repeatedly, which was fairly redundant information seeing as my parents had much better English than I did, and already knew the word because they were teaching it to me.
...The notion of light triumphing over darkness is found in many religions, and is at the core of Diwali, regardless of which tradition applies.
My grandparents used to fill their home with candles when they had dinner parties, and I’ve always found them mesmerising – and they're a particular feature of Diwali. These days, a wonderful variety of electric lights are used as well, but there’s still nothing that compares with the charm of a candle. Even the electronic faux-flickering variety works for me. And of course, everyone loves a fireworks display.
There are many reasons for the display of lights depending on the particular religious tradition, but the notion of light triumphing over darkness is found in many religions, and is at the core of Diwali, regardless of which tradition applies.
One common explanation within Hinduism is that the lights celebrate the return of Lord Rama, his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana from exile. In Tamil Nadu, where I’ll be celebrating this year, it’s a celebration of Lord Krishna’s triumph over the demon Narakasura – but each region has its emphasis.
Diwali also especially celebrates Lakshmi, the wife of Lord Vishnu, although some regions of India associate it with Kali instead. Colourful posters of Lakshmi are everywhere during the festival – she’s generally depicted on a lotus leaf. And as she’s associated with wealth, prosperity and good fortune, her popularity speaks for itself.
There’s a sense of welcome associated with putting out lights, and indeed, Diwali is a time of family reunions. In a region where many live and work far from their hometowns, Diwali is the date of the annual pilgrimage back to one’s village – or huge metropolis in many cases nowadays (if you're visiting India, it's probably not the best time to try to move around).
When families reunite, of course, they consume sweets, which are probably the easiest and certainly the most delicious entry point for a non-Hindu. Australia has many Indian sweetshops, and they tend to do so much trade for Diwali that they put out extra tables, piled high with treats.
After all these sweets, you may need new pants to replace the ones you just split –fortunately Diwali is also celebrated with new clothes, marking a fresh beginning.
There are so many kinds on offer that it’s impossible to try every variety in a single sitting. Whether you try a syrup-dunked gulab jamun ball, a twisty, crunchy, luminous orange jalebi, a laddu sphere, some halwa loaf or one of the fudge-like barfi varieties – to name just a few – you’re sure to find something you like.
After all these sweets, you may need new pants to replace the ones you just split –fortunately Diwali is also celebrated with new clothes, marking a fresh beginning. Gifts are also often exchanged at Diwali, providing yet another source of celebration on this most jolly of festivals.
The ways in which Diwali is celebrated, and even the variation in dates, reflect the vast diversity of the subcontinent itself.
It's a mixture of different language, religious and cultural traditions, and every region has its own particular version. But what's common is the joy and celebration throughout this very happy time of year.
I'm really looking forward to my first Diwali in India, which will also be a much-anticipated family reunion.
But if I was celebrating here in Australia, I'd be buying clothes, pulling out the candles and fairy lights and inviting people over for a meal, followed of course by sweets.
And whether it's a long standing tradition in your family or you’re just interested in sampling some sweets, I hope you very much enjoy the festival of lights.