Each year, in October and November, Hindus around the world celebrate Diwali, (also called Deepavali) which is a festival of lights that reaches back more than 2,500 years. It is marked as the biggest occasion of the year, in India, and is traditionally celebrated by five days of festivities including feasting, fireworks, prayer and family gatherings. Families often place brightly coloured clay pots in a row (deepavali means row of lights) outside their homes.
This ancient celebration is linked to such a variety of religious stories that it is impossible to know the true genesis or age of the event. Many of these stories, however, have common themes - the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness.
An example of one such tale, common in northern India, is about King Rama – one of the incarnations of the god Vishnu. When evil King Ravana, from Sri Lanka, captures Rama’s wife Sita, he creates an army of monkeys to rescue her.
The monkeys build a bridge from India to Sri Lanka, invade Sri Lanka and free Sita, killing the evil king in the process. As Rama and Sita return to the north, they see millions of lights guiding them home to Ayodhya. As a result of this story, the lighting of lamps has become a traditional ritual of Diwali celebrations.
In southern India, Diwali is often linked to a story about the Hindu god Krishna, also an incarnation of Vishnu, in which he frees 16,000 women from the demon king, Narakasura.
Diwali coincides with one of the many New Year celebrations throughout India and, in the west of India, is considered an appropriate time to ask the goddess Lakshmi for prosperity in the coming year. In this iteration, celebrants often exchange gifts and coins.
While Diwali is a religious holiday, it’s also somewhat of a national holiday in India – similar, in that way, to the acknowledgement of Christmas in countries like New Zealand and Australia, regardless of religious affiliation.
Diwali is observed by more than a billion people of a variety of faiths. Religions such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism use Diwali to mark important events in their histories, too.
Just as the legends of Diwali differ from region to region so, too, do the holiday’s rituals. The common thread, however, is connecting with family and enjoying sweet treats. The traditional lighting of clay lamps that represents the inner light that protects each household from spiritual darkness, is a significant component of the celebration.
Each of the five days of Diwali has its own important activity. On the first day of Diwali, devotees pray to the goddess Lakshmi, bake sweet treats, and clean their homes. The second day is spent decorating the home with lamps and designs made on the floor with coloured sand, rice or petals – these are called ‘rangolis’. On the third, and most important day, some celebrants choose to go to temple to pay tribute to Lakshmi and then gather with friends and family for feasts and fireworks. Devotees also light the lamps they had displayed the day before. The fourth day of Diwali heralds the new year and is a time to exchange gifts and well wishes and day five is usually a family day and used as an opportunity connect with siblings.
Diwali in New Zealand
Although Diwali falls on November 4th this year, festivities will begin around the 23rd of October. Diwali Festivals are very popular across New Zealand. Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch hold two day-long festivals attended by people from all communities and religions. This year, however, during the Covid-19 pandemic and with Auckland in lockdown, Diwali celebrations will be rather different.
The more traditional rituals may still be observed, albeit modified to abide by the rules of each community. Within families, and outside in selected ‘bubbles’, people may gather to celebrate this meaningful time of the year.
The Auckland Diwali Festival has moved to an online event – they will offer lessons, crafts, music, cooking and more.
The overarching meaning of Diwali is to celebrate the triumph of lightness over darkness and, during this time of upheaval, the spirit of that message can be something to celebrate.