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Diwali—All You Need to Know

 

Diwali (pronounced Di-val-ee) is often called the Festival of Lights and is the most important holiday of the year in India. This festival includes rituals, decorations, great food, gifts, clay lamps, and beautiful firework displays. 

Experiencing Diwali is a great way to learn more about Indian culture and to gain an insight into the Hindu faith.

In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about Diwali 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.

Woman lighting clay lanters, diyas, during Diwali in India

Skip ahead:
1. What is Diwali?
2. Legends and History
3. When is Diwali?
4. How Diwali is Celebrated
5. Diwali as a Traveler
4. Where to Celebrate Diwali
4. Diwali Safety and Travel Tips

Why You Should Experience Diwali in India

  • Diwali is a great time to be in India because the markets come alive and you can see the excitement in the eyes of children in the days before the festival.
  • This is the Hindu new year and is celebrated with string lights decorating every building and impressive firework displays.
  • You can spend time in a homestay with an Indian family who will welcome you in and show you all the beautiful customs and rituals that take place over the five days.
  • Take incredible photos of the lit clay Diwali lanterns as they sit outside homes and line streets.
  • This is one of the best holidays for travelers to gain a deeper understanding of the major religions of India as many of them celebrate Diwali.
  • Many Indians in major cities wear western-style clothes on a daily basis. Diwali is a great chance to see the entire country wear their most beautiful traditional clothing.

Diwali

So what is Diwali?

Another important aspect of Diwali 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. Each religion has different reasons behind the holiday, but the idea of light defeating darkness is the same across faiths.

Diwali Legends and History

For most Indians, Diwali is a time to think about life and get rid of any personal darkness. However, the legends and reasons behind the celebration of Diwali vary greatly from region to region within the country.

So now you must be thinking: Why is Diwali celebrated?

Depending on where you are in India, the festival could be dedicated to a variety of deities and have many different traditions. Below are some of the most widespread Diwali stories and legends.

For the majority of Indians, the first day of Diwali is dedicated to Lakshmi who is the goddess of wealth and prosperity. In Hindu mythology, it is said that during the new moon of Diwali, Lakshmi was born and emerged from the ocean.

Because of this, the main day of Diwali is dedicated to the celebration of the birth of the goddess. Many Hindus believe that Lakshmi returns to earth on this day to bless her followers with wealth. People light diyas or clay lanterns to lead the goddess to each house and set off fireworks to scare away evil spirits.

Most Indians also clean their houses before the day before Diwali because the goddess is said to visit the cleanest houses first. The cleaning also symbolizes the removal of negativity and ignorance from the house and mind.

For many Hindus and especially those from North India, one of the most widely believed legends of Diwali is the story of Lord Rama and his wife Sita returning to their kingdom. This legend comes from the Ramayana which is a holy Hindu epic.

Lord Rama was forced to leave his kingdom due to a promise that his father had made to his stepmother. He left the kingdom for 14 years traveling with only his wife and brother. He met many challenges along the way and defeated a mighty demon.

He returned to his kingdom the night of the new moon and his people expressed their joy by lighting lanterns in every corner of the land. People continue to light lanterns during Diwali to this day in order to celebrate Lord Rama's return from exile.

In South India, many people celebrate Diwali to commemorate when Lord Krishna defeated the demon Narakasura.

Narakasura had gained a lot of power and began to use it in evil ways. He made life miserable for the good people of the world and stole and enslaved young girls.

To defeat him, Lord Krishna and his wife fought a bloody battle against Narakasura and won. The 16,000 women that the demon had enslaved were set free and Lord Krishna married all of them to save their honor.

People from western India often attribute the reason behind Diwali to the story of King Bali. The legend says that at one time King Bali ruled the whole world and although he was a good king, he became too confident and over-ambitious.

He wasn't okay with just ruling the earth but he wanted to also rule the heavens. Because of this the gods became worried and asked Lord Vishnu for protection.

Lord Vishnu disguised himself as a dwarf priest and went to the court of King Bali to make a bet with him. Lord Vishnu asked to rule all of the land he could walk over in three steps. King Bali agreed to his request.

Once he agreed Lord Vishnu became enormous and in two steps covered all of the Earth as well as the heavens. King Bali saw this and knew he must keep his promise so he offered his head to Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu sent King Bali to rule the underworld, but he was also impressed that King Bali kept his promise.

To reward the honor of King Bali, Lord Vishnu granted him the eternal lamp of knowledge and allowed him to return to earth once a year to illuminate it with lanterns.

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.

The first time that Diwali appears in historical writings is in a Sanskrit play that was written by King Harsha in the 7th century. In the play, the king refers to lamps being lit and gifts that were given.

Woman Holding a Diwali Diya in a pink sari

When is Diwali?

Diwali, like many Indian holidays, is based on the lunar calendar so the date of the festival changes each year. Diwali 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?

Upcoming Diwali Dates:

  • Diwali 2020: November 12th–16th
  • Diwali 2021: November 2nd–6th
  • Diwali 2022: October 22nd–26th
  • Diwali 2023: November 5th–9th
  • Diwali 2024: October 30th–November 3rd
  • Diwali 2025: October 19th–23rd

How Diwali is Celebrated

People celebrate in many different ways over the 5 days of Diwali festivities. The main day of Diwali celebrations happens on the 3rd day.

Diwali Greetings

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'.

Diwali Decorations

The main decoration for Diwali is the 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.

Diwali Food

On the main day of Diwali, families will have large get-togethers where they exchange gifts and eat a large meal. Meals often include many courses with plenty of Indian gravy dishes along with curries, bread, rice, and sweets.

The 5 Days of Diwali

Day 5 (Bhai Duj): This day celebrates the bond between brothers, sisters, and cousins. Siblings often get together and give each other gifts and share food. Sisters will perform a special ceremony where they place an auspicious red mark on the forehead of their brothers for protection.

How to Experience Diwali as a Traveler

Because Diwali is such a family-focused holiday where much of the celebrating happens indoors, it can be difficult to fully experience the holiday when visiting India.

Here are some of the best ways to enjoy Diwali as a traveler:

  • Head outside to light firecrackers and watch the fireworks. This happens in most major cities during the holiday.
  • Go to the markets to watch the Diwali shopping chaos and maybe find some new clothes or jewelry for yourself.
  • Try all the delicious Indian sweets that are sold everywhere during the holiday.
  • Go to a temple during Diwali to observe the daily rituals or pujas that are performed for the gods and goddesses.
  • If you really want to experience how the festival is celebrated by Indian families, you can consider spending time at a homestay. Homestays are becoming more and more popular in major travel destinations such as Delhi and Jaipur because they offer travelers the chance to join in the celebrations and gain a deeper understanding of the holiday.

Diwali Rangoli with Diyas and colored rice

Top 5 Places to Celebrate Diwali in India

While Diwali is celebrated throughout India, some places celebrate with more decorations and more lively activities than others.

1. Delhi

Delhi is a great place to visit during the festival because of its large Diwali markets and fairs that take place all around the city. Here you can buy gold, kitchen utensils, clothes, and also unique handicrafts and souvenirs.

There is also a Diwali Carnival with rides and games that is held in the Sundar Negar neighborhood every year.

2. Jaipur

Jaipur is a very popular destination during the festival due to its beautiful illuminated markets. During Diwali, this picturesque pink city comes to life with every street, market, and building decorated with lights. 

During Diwali, the whole state of Rajasthan has a competition for the most beautifully and brightly lit market. Touring each market has become a popular activity for travelers during the festival.

3. Varanasi

Varanasi is the oldest Hindu city in the world and visiting this city during any Hindu holiday tends to be incredible and hectic at the same time. During Diwali, Varanasi sets off fireworks all night long which can be seen exploding into colors over the holy Ganges River.

Varanasi also hosts a beautiful ritual on the Ganges where people place diyas on the water and create a stunning display of thousands of flickering lights floating down the river.

4. Goa

The people of Goa believe in the Diwali legend of Lord Krishna destroying the demon Narakasura. During the holiday, each town in Goa holds a competition to make the largest and most evil-looking effigy of the demon. Then all of them are burned at dawn on the second day of Diwali.

5. Kolkata

Kolkata is an interesting place to be during Diwali because while most of India celebrates the goddess Lakshmi, people in Kolkata celebrate Kali the goddess of destruction. Although Kali is the goddess of death and destruction, she is worshipped for her ability to destroy a person's ego and the arrogance that comes with it.

During Diwali in Kolkata, the city is illuminated with lanterns and huge idols of this formidable goddess are displayed across the city.

Tips for Diwali

In order to make sure you have a great time when you visit India during Diwali, check out the travel and safety tips below:

Tip 1: Book All Flights and Accommodation in Advance

  • Diwali is one of the busiest travel periods in India. Indians who live abroad or in other areas of the country return home for the holiday. This means that there will be a higher demand for domestic flights and trains so it is important to book early.
  • Diwali takes place in October and November which is the start of the tourism season. Because it is likely that many other travelers will want to visit at this time it is important to make sure you book accommodation early in order to get the best prices.

Tip 2: Prepare for the Noise

  • Diwali celebrations are notoriously loud. During the holiday there will be large fireworks booming overhead and many children in the streets setting off firecrackers. This can go on for several days.
  • If you are a light sleeper, you may want to bring earplugs or headphones with you to help you sleep through the night celebrations.

Tip 3: Stay Safe with Firecrackers

  • During Diwali, there are often children and young people running through the streets setting off firecrackers or holding flaming sparklers. It is important to be vigilant and watch out for firecrackers so as to not get burned.

Tip 4: Prepare for Air Pollution

  • Because of the many fireworks and firecrackers that are set off during Diwali, you can expect high levels of air pollution during and after the holiday.
  • To be safe, its a good idea to wear a facemask so that you don't breathe in too much smoke.
  • Try and view major monuments like the Taj Mahal or Red Fort before Diwali or a few days afterward if you want to get photos with clear skies.

Celebrate Diwali with Asia Highlights

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