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Diwali (pronounced Di-val-ee) is often called the Festival of Lights and is the most important holiday of the year in India. During this holiday, the whole country gets into a joyous and festive mood while they prepare to celebrate with rituals, decorations, great food, gifts, clay oil lamps, and beautiful firework displays.
The most iconic image of Diwali is the lit diya or small clay oil lantern. If you visit India during this holiday, you will see streets lined with diyas as people light the way for Lord Rama to return home or for Goddess Lakshmi to bring them prosperity.
In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about this festival including its stories and history, when it takes place, how to celebrate as a foreigner, and some tips on enjoying this festival while in India.
So what is Diwali?
Diwali is a festival that celebrates the victory of light over darkness and triumph of good over evil in Indian mythology. The holiday is celebrated over 5 days and includes many traditions. The word Diwali comes from the Sanskrit word Deepavali which means 'row of lights' and refers to the holiday's many diyas and glowing decorations.
This holiday is very important to most Indians as it is a time to gather with extended family for a large meal. Most households spend a few days preparing homemade sweets leading up to the holiday so they can give them to any visitors who stop by. It is a tradition for young people to visit the houses of their neighbors and elders on the holiday.
Another important aspect of this holiday is that it is celebrated by people of many different religions. Although it is considered to be a mostly Hindu festival, Jains and Sikhs celebrate it too. For Jains, this holiday is the celebration of one of their most revered leaders attaining Nirvana. For Sikhs, it is the celebration of Guru Hargobind's release from prison.
Diwali is also celebrated in Nepal as Tihar Festival.
Because Diwali is celebrated by so many different religions and is surrounded by many myths, it is very difficult to know exactly when and where the festival began. Most researchers believe the festival is more than 2,500 years old and that the holiday is a fusion of many different ancient festivals into one large harvest celebration.
There are many legends and stories that surround Diwali and each region of India believes in a different one. For most Indians, this festival celebrates the birth of the goddess Lakshmi who is said to have emerged from the ocean on the new moon night of the Hindu month of Kartik.
Many people in northern India celebrate the return of Lord Rama after 14 years of exile as told in the Ramayana epic. In South India, most people celebrate Lord Krishna and his defeat of the demon Narakasura.
Diwali, like many Indian holidays, is based on the lunar calendar so the date of the festival changes each year, but it typically falls in late October or early November.
The festival takes place on the night of the new moon after the summer harvest. This is considered to be the darkest night of the year according to the Hindu lunisolar calendar and is very holy.
So when exactly is Diwali? Well, in 2020 it will take place over 5 days from November 12th to 16th.
There are many different traditions that surround the celebration of this holiday. Overall, it is considered an important time for introspection and cleansing. Certain Hindus consider it to be the start of the new year and use it as a time to get rid of the negativity of the past and perform rituals to bring luck and prosperity in the new year.
This is also a large family celebration that often involves extended families coming together for a large meal and the exchange of presents. Before the festival, people will go out to Diwali markets and buy new clothes to wear on the main day of celebrations. This is a symbol of getting rid of the old and bringing in the new.
Diwali takes place over a period of 5 days and the 3rd day is the main day of celebrations. Below we have listed all the days of Diwali and how each one is celebrated:
Day 1 (Dhanteras): This is the day when people clean their homes to prepare for the return of goddess Lakshmi. This is also the biggest shopping day when people head to the Diwali markets to buy gold, silver, kitchenware, and other auspicious items.
Day 2 (Choti Diwali): This is the day before Diwali when homes are often decorated with string lights and the rangoli are created in the doorways of homes. Rangoli are intricate designs created on the floor to welcome visitors.
Families also either buy Diwali sweets from markets or start preparing them at home. In South India, those who believe in the legend of Lord Krishna defeating the demon Narakasura burn large statues of the demon in celebration.
Day 3 (Diwali): This is the main day of celebrations when families get together and the cities fill with lights and fireworks. Everyone puts on their most beautiful new and traditional clothing and takes a cleansing bath in the morning. Young people spend the day visiting their relatives and families often exchange gifts.
In the evening, extended families come together for large meals, the diyas are lit, and a ritual is performed for the goddess Lakshmi. Some families also offer prayers to Ganesh, Saraswati, Rama, Sita, Hanuman, or Kubera.
This is the day where the most fireworks, firecrackers, and sparklers are lit. It is common for children to burst crackers in the street all through the night in celebration.
Most businesses and restaurants are closed on this day.
Day 4 (Padwa): The fourth day of the festival is dedicated to celebrating the love between husband and wife. Men will often buy gifts for their wives on this day.
As the ritual asking goddess Lakshmi to bring wealth and prosperity to the family was performed the night before, this is considered an auspicious time to start new accounts or business ventures. This is also a large day for gambling and the casinos in Goa are especially popular.
Day 5 (Bhai Duj): On the last day of Diwali, families gather together to celebrate the special bond between brothers and sisters in a beautiful ceremony.
During the ritual, sisters perform prayers and wish for the well-being and success of their brothers by tying a special bracelet called a rakhi around the wrist of their brother. They also place a red holy mark called a tika on their brother's head.
To thank their sisters, brothers often give gifts and sweets to their sisters and promise to protect them.
The traditional greeting that is often said on Diwali is 'Shubh Deepavali' or 'Diwali ki Shubhkamnayein'. Both greetings directly translate to 'have an auspicious Diwali'.
It has also common for Indians to greet each other by just saying 'Happy Diwali'.
On the holiday, many people send electronic greeting cards to their friends and family wishing them a happy holiday. If you're in India for the holiday, you can also send greeting cards via Whatsapp, India's preferred method of communication.
Food is a major part of the celebration of Diwali. During the festival, friends and relatives exchange Indian sweets. These sweets can be homemade or bought in markets.
Some of the most popular Diwali sweets include laddoos (a round pastry made from flour, butter, and sugar), barfi (white creamy bars made from condensed milk, sugar, and nuts), kheer (sweet rice pudding).
It is also tradition to eat locks of delicious snacks during the holiday, some of which include pakoras (vegetables fried in a chickpea flour batter), samosas (the classic triangle-shaped snack filled with spiced veggies), and chivda (a tasty Indian snack mix).
Learn more about what foods to try in India during Diwali.
The main decoration for Diwali is diyas or clay lanterns. These lanterns are often small and shaped like a bowl to hold oil that will burn throughout the night. Diyas can be very simple and orange in color or ornately decorated.
Other important Diwali decorations include intricate floor patterns called rangoli, paper lanterns, candles, door hangings, marigold garlands, and string lights.
Learn more about how India decorates for Diwali.
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