What is Diwali?
Known as the festival of lights, Diwali is celebrated on a nation-wide scale sometime between mid September and mid November, based on the Hindu calendar. In 2019, Diwali falls on November 14.
“Diwali” is the easy-to-pronounce form of Deepavali. In Sanskrit “Deepawali” is the marriage of two Sanskrit words- Deepa meaning light and Avali, meaning a row. Every home is aglow with the orange glow of twinkling diyas. Lighting these small earthen lamps welcome Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity. Multi-colored rangoli designs, floral decorations and fireworks lend vivid, colorful imagery and grandeur to this festival which heralds joy, mirth and happiness in the ensuring year.
This festival is celebrated on a grand scale in almost all the regions of India and is looked upon in some parts of India as the beginning of the new calendar or financial year. For those who believe Diwali begins a new financial, they year tidy up their accounts and are much more apt to hold grand pujas and devotional displays for Goddess Lakshmi. As such the blessings of Lakshmi, the celestial consort of Lord Vishnu are invoked with prayers. While Diwali originates in India, people from Kenya, Thailand, Trinidad, Thailand, and Malaya also have adapted Indian customs, making Diwali their own unique celebration. Of course, Indians living abroad in countries like the U.K., Canada, and the U.S.A. also celebrate this festival.
While Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) may celebrate Diwali on the weekend before or after Diwali, Diwali is a government holiday and is celebrated in many parts for up to five days.
Day 1: Dhanteras
The first day is called Dhanteras or Dhantrayodashi which falls on the thirteenth day of the month of Kartik. The word “Dhan” means wealth. As such this day of the five-day Diwali festival has a great importance for the rich mercantile community of Western India. Houses and business premises are renovated and decorated. Entrances are made colorful with lovely traditional motifs of rangoli designs to welcome the Goddess of wealth and prosperity. To indicate her long-awaited arrival, small footprints are drawn with rice flour and vermilion powder all over the houses. Lamps are kept burning all through the nights. Believing this day to be auspicious women purchase some gold or silver or at least one or two new utensils. “Lakshmi-Puja” is performed in the evenings when tiny diyas of clay are lighted to drive away the shadows of evil spirits. “Bhajans”-devotional songs- in praise of Goddess Lakshmi are sung and “Naivedya” of traditional sweets is offered to the Goddess. There is a peculiar custom in Maharashtra to lightly pound dry coriander seeds with jaggery and offer as Naivedya.
In villages cattle are adorned and worshiped by farmers as they form the main source of their income. In South India cows are offered special veneration as they are supposed to be the incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi and therefore they are adorned and worshiped on this day. (Another time of the year cow worship happens is during Pongal in January in Tamil Nadu.)
A very interesting story about this day is of the sixteen year old son of King Hima. As per his horoscope he was doomed to die by a snake-bite on the fourth day of his marriage. On that particular fourth day of his marriage his young wife did not allow him to sleep. She laid all the ornaments and lots of gold and silver coins in a big heap at the entrance of her husband’s boudoir and lighted innumerable lamps all over the place. And she went on telling stories and singing songs. When Yama the god of Death arrived there in the guise of a serpent his eyes were suddenly blinded by the dazzle of those brilliant lights and he could not enter the Prince’s chamber. So he climbed on top of the heap of the ornaments and coins and sat there whole night listening to the melodious songs. In the morning he quietly went away.
Thus the young wife saved her husband from the clutches of death. Since then this day of Dhanteras came to be known as the day of Yamadeepdaan and lamps are kept burning throughout the night in reverential adoration to Yama, the god of Death.
Day 2: Nakra-Chaturdashi
The second day is called Nakra-Chaturdashi or Choti Diwali falls on the fourteenth day of the month of Kartik. It is on this day that Lord Krishna returns from Pragyotishpur (Nepal) completing a journey where he killed the demon king Narakasur, freed 16,000 daughters of the gods in the king’s harem and reclaimed the Mother Goddess, Aditi’s earrings. To prove he was victorious in killing the demon, Lord Krishna returned home with the king’s blood smeared on his forehead. To cleanse the blood and restore overall cleanliness, the womenfolk bathed the Lord in scented oils. Since then, the custom of taking bath before sunrise is customary in various parts of India, including Maharashtra.
In South India that victory of the divine over the mundane is celebrated in a unique way. To re-enact the victory of Lord Krishna some believers will break melons on the door step of their homes, representing the head of the demon King. After smashing the melon, people will smear their foreheads with a mixture of kumkum powder and oil, which represents the blood Lord Krishna smeared on his head. Continuing this ritual, many more, including those who do not break melons, will take an oil bath using sesame (gingerly) oil with cumin seeds and peppercorns, following up with a more modern water and soap bath to restore moisture and a sweet smell to the body.
In Maharashtra also, traditional early baths with oil and “Uptan” (paste) of gram flour and fragrant powders are a must. All through the ritual of baths, deafening sounds of crackers and fireworks are there in order that the children enjoy bathing. Afterwards steamed vermicelli with milk and sugar or puffed rice with curd is served.
On Nakra-Chaturdashi day, people dedicate themselves to lighting lamps and praying. On this day, people believe that the lighting of lamps expels ignorance and heralds a future full of joy and laughter. The story behind this holiday tradition revolves around King Bali of the nether world. His mighty power had become a threat to the gods. In order to curb his powers Lord Vishnu in the guise of a small boy (batu waman) visited him and begged him to give him as much land as he could cover with his three steps. Known for his philanthropy, King Bali proudly granted him his wish. That very moment that small boy transformed himself into the all-powerful Lord Vishnu. With his first step Lord Vishnu covered the entire heaven and with the second step he covered the earth. Before taking the third and final step, Lord Vishnu asked Bali where he should make his third step. Bali offered his head. Putting his foot on his head, Vishnu pushed him down to the underworld. At the same time for his generosity Lord Vishnu gave him the lamp of knowledge and allowed him to return to earth once a year to light millions of lamps to dispel the darkness and ignorance and spread the radiance of love and wisdom.
Note, that interestingly the story of King Bali is used in Kerala to explain Onam.
Day 3: Lakshmi Puja
The third day of the festival of Diwali is the most important day of Lakshmi Puja which is entirely devoted to the propitiation of Goddess Lakshmi. This day is also known by the name of Chopada Puja. On this very day sun enters the second course and passes Libra which is represented by the balance or scale. Hence, this design of Libra is believed to have suggested the balancing of account books and their closing. Despite the fact that this day falls on an amavasya day, it is regarded as the most auspicious. When the sun sets in the evening and ceremonial worship is finished all the homemade sweets are offered to the goddess as naivedya and distributed as prasad (prasadam). Feasts are arranged and gifts are exchanged. On this day gaily dressed men, women and children go to temples and fairs, visit friends and relatives.
One of the most curious customs which characterizes this festival of Diwali is the indulgence of gambling, especially on a large scale in North India. It is believed that goddess Parvati played dice with her husband, Lord Shiv on this day and she decreed that whosoever gambled on Diwali night would prosper throughout the ensuring year. This tradition of playing cards- flush and rummy with stakes on this particular day continues even today.
Day 4: Padwa or Varshapratipada
It is the fourth day that marks the coronation of King Vikramaditya, initiating Vikram-Samvat from this Padwa day.
Govardhan-Puja is also performed in the North on this day. As per Vishnu-Puran the people of Gokul used to celebrate a festival in honor of Lord Indira, worshiping him after the end of every monsoon season. However, one particular year the young Krishna stopped them from offering prayers to Lord Indira. This angered Lord Indira, who responded by submerging Gokul underwater. Krishna saved Gokul by lifting up the Govardhan Mountain and holding it over the people as an umbrella. To commemorate this day, people of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar build cow dung hillocks, decorate them with flowers and then worship them.
On this day in the temples of Mathura and Nathadwara, the deities are given milk bath, dressed in shining attires with ornaments of dazzling diamonds, pearls, rubies and other precious stones. After the prayers are offered, the innumerable varieties of delicious sweets are ceremoniously raised in the form of a mountain (known as Annakoot) before the deities as bhog. Only after this offering, devotees take prasad from the bhog.
Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped in every Hindu household and her blessings sought for success and happiness. This day is looked upon as the most auspicious day to start any new venture. In many Hindu homes it is a custom for the wife to put the red tilak on the forehead of her husband, garland him and do his aarthi with a prayer for his long life. In appreciation of all the tender care that the wife showers on him, the husband gives her a costly gift. This Gudi Padwa is symbolic of love and devotion between the wife and husband. The first Diwali celebrated between married couples may go by different names in different parts of India. In Tamil Nadu, the married couple’s first Diwali is called Thali Diwali as ‘thali’ means marriage necklace. On this fourth day of Diwali, newly married couples visit their inlaws to eat special food and recieve Diwali gifts.
Day 5: Bhayya- Duj
The fifth and final day of Diwali is known as Bhayya-Duj. It is also known in Hindi as Bhav-Bij and in Marathi and Nepalese as Bhai Tika.
Legend says Yamraj, the God of Death visited his sister Yami on this particular day. She put the auspicious tilak on his forehead, garlanded him and fed him with special dishes. Together, they ate the sweets, talked and enjoyed themselves to their heart’s content. While parting Yamraj gave her a special gift as a token of his love and in return Yami also gave him a lovely gift which she had made with her own hands. That day Yamraj announced that anyone who receives tilak from his sister will never be thrown. That is why this day of Bhayyaduj is also known by the name of Yama Dwitiya.
Since then this day is being observed as a symbol of love between sisters and brothers. It became also imperative for the brother to go to his sister’s house to celebrate Bhayyaduj.
Summing Up Diwali
In today’s world when pressing everyday problems are teaming as under all the tender words of personal relationships, the celebrating of this day has its own importance in continuing to maintain the love between brothers and sister. It is the day of food-sharing; gift-giving and reaching out to the inner most depths of the hearts.
Diwali on the whole has always been the festival with more social than religious connotations. It is a personal, people-oriented festival when enmities are forgotten; families and friends meet, enjoy and establish a word of closeness.
As a festival of light and beauty it encourages artistic expressions through home-decorations stage-plays, elocution competitions singing and dancing programs, making gift items and delectable sweets thereby discovering new talents of younger people. As a result innumerable communities with varying cultures and customs mingle together to make Diwali celebrations a very happy occasion for all.
Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore has communicated the true significance of Diwali in one beautiful line: “The night is black. Kindle the lamp of love with thy life and devotion.”
This story was sent to me through a friend on e-mail. Hope you have enjoyed it!
Diwali is on November 9, 2023.
Diwali is on October 14, 2022.
Diwali is on November 4, 2021.
When is Diwali in 2020? November 14, 2020
When is Diwali in 2019? October 27, 2019
When is Diwali in 2018? November 7, 2018
When is Diwali in 2017? October 19, 2017
Read more about how Indians and South Asians celebrate Diwali in the U.S.
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Photo credit (Goddess Lakshmi): Scan of card from temple
Photo credits for all others: Pixabay (cover image- Guddanti)
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