What is the origin of the Diwali Festival?
Also known as the Festival of Lights, Diwali does not have the same story across regions of India. In the north, we celebrate the return of King Rama, an incarnation of the God Vishnu, to his kingdom, Ayodhya, after a fourteen-year exile. In the South, a different story is associated with the festival: According to legend, Narakasura, a demon king, tormented people for a long time until the day when the God Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, killed him. The people celebrated the demon king’s defeat and since then the custom has continued. Regardless of the origin of Diwali, Hindus share the idea of celebrating the victory of good over evil, of light over darkness.
How do Indians celebrate Diwali?
Wherever you are in India, prepare yourselves for a splendid day and night – cities are lit up, firecrackers and fireworks are ringing everywhere, paper lanterns brighten the streets, and every household is looking at its best.
The festivities are traditionally spread over 5 days. While traditions and customs differ from region to region, here are some interesting facts:
The 1st day, Dhanteras, is devoted to the preparations. The houses are cleaned, tidied, and illuminated to please Lakshmi, the Goddess governing emotions and refinement, who comes to visit her devotees. People buy new utensils, objects, or jewelry as it is believed that the Goddess will enter homes in the form of new things.
On the 2nd day, Chhoti Diwali, the victory of Shri Krishna over the demon Narakasura is celebrated, which symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. The legend says that Krishna, after killing the demon, took a bath to purify himself. Some Hindu families follow the ritual of taking a bath with natural oils that day before sunrise.
On the 3rd day, Diwali, the festival is at its peak: Mother Lakshmi is celebrated; new clothes are worn, and people adorn themselves with new jewelry. Oil lamps are lit around and inside homes, as well as in the streets. Gifts are exchanged to strengthen bonds with family and friends.
The 4th day, Annakut, is the day of abundance: food is distributed, and offerings are made to the Gods. In temples dedicated to Krishna, the deity is given a ritual milk bath and adorned with his most beautiful clothes and jewelry.
On the 5th day, Bhai Dooj, worship ceremonies, commonly called pujas, are the focal point. This day is also dedicated to siblings. The sisters apply a tilak (a red mark) to their brother’s forehead and pray for a prosperous life, while the brothers bless their sisters with gifts.
Some particularities of Diwali in South India
Firstly, the Southern States celebrate this holiday always one day before the Northern States, and it usually only lasts 4 days. These differences can be explained by divergent beliefs about the origin of Diwali.
The 3rd day of the festival is considered the last of the year, according to the Hindu Vikram calendar used in northern India. And so, the next day is the start of the Hindu New Year. But this is not the case in South India, because another calendar is used, that of Shalivahana.
In Tamil Nadu, on Diwali Day, the oldest family member applies sesame oil on the heads of all family members before sunrise. Then it is an oil bath for everyone, starting with the youngest in the family.
Kerala is the only state in India where Diwali is not a major festival. There are several reasons for this: first because Diwali also represents the end of the monsoons and the start of a new harvest season, but, in Kerala, the agricultural season does not start at that time, so it does not coincide. In addition, the weather is not favorable during this period and it is therefore less easy to turn on lights outdoors or start fireworks. Finally, although there are a considerable number of Hindus, there are also many Christians and Muslims in this state.
In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the festivities take place over two days – Naraka Chaturdasi and Deepavali Amavasya. The festivities begin early in the morning. Most of the time, people are engaged in shopping and decorating their homes.
In Karnataka, the festival begins with a religious ceremony called neeru tumbo habba, during which the houses are cleaned, washed, and painted. The next day, Lakshmi puja is performed. On the fourth day, the house, especially the entrance, is decorated with flowers and floor rangolis (drawings of coloured powder or rice powder) to invite the Gods to their homes. A special entrance to the house is built, made of cow dung (gomaya) and sandalwood (siri-chandana).
The common theme of Diwali throughout India is centered around the celebration of abundance and lovingly sharing it with close ones.
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