Diwali is a festival of lights and one of the most widely celebrated South Asian holidays. In America, it is typically celebrated in the Fall.
The holiday has its origins in Hinduism, and the general meaning of Diwali is victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. But because the holiday is celebrated in many countries around the world, and among many peoples, it can take on many different meanings. Rather than focus on particular interpretation of the holiday, Diwali Fest NJ is sharing what Diwali means in a personal way for members of the community. Here are some of their stories.
Benghali in Mumbai, India
“Growing up in Mumbai, my family’s celebration was a mish mash of Mumbaikar and Bengali traditions.
The day before Diwali, we followed Bengali tradition and ate rice and greens (made with 14 types of greens, which are always a challenge to collect). We also lit 14 diyas (lamps) to scare away any bad spirits.
My dad and I would spend the week before building our paper lantern for hanging on our apartment’s balcony. My sister and I reveled in the number and types of fire crackers we had bought. A little scared of the loud ones, we gravitated towards the ones with colorful displays of fire and light.
As evening came, we rushed about hanging and lighting our lantern and numerous diyas on our balcony, windowsills and doorsteps. As soon as it was dark, we rushed downstairs to join our friends and neighbors to light our firecrackers. Ooh, aahs and screeches competed with the loud bangs that filled the air.
Once the fire crackers were done, our family packed ourselves into the car and headed to the Bengali Kali Puja at Shivaji Park. Here we spent the rest of the evening with our friends and family eating snacks, playing and watching dance and music performances. At midnight, after worshipping Ma Kali, we sat down at long communal tables for a dinner of goat curry and rice, fried eggplant, tomato chutney and rosogolla. Exhausted, we would return home at 2:00 am chattering about the best Diwali ever!”
“We take oil bath in the morning, wear a new outfit, and in the evening we cook good food and do small sparkle fire works.”
Tamil Nadu, India
“Diwali or Deepavali, as it is called in Tamil Nadu, was the holiday that I looked forward to the most as a child growing up in the Indian city of Chennai.
In certain parts of Tamil Nadu, Deepaval is believed to mark the day the Hindu God Krishna defeated the demon Narakasura, whose dying request was that his defeat forever be marked and celebrated with great fanfare. It’s also believed that smell of onions drive him away! So, it is the one holiday on which festive food is cooked with plenty of onions.
Celebrated over two days—an evening and the following day, on Diwali the entire city would come to a standstill with the sound of fireworks reverberating down every street and alleyway. The anticipation would build slowly.
First, we would travel as a family to purchase new clothes to be worn on Deepavali morning. Then, makeshift temporary stores illuminated by kerosene lamps selling a range of fireworks would pop up in our neighborhood and remain packed with customers. Large tins of sweets and fried snacks would be prepared and kept out reach only to be distributed on Deepavali morning. Deepavali eve would begin at home with lighting oil lamps.
Even today, in South Orange, my daughters and I light a plate of small clay lamps and place them outside on our doorstep on the night before Deepavali. Deepavali morning involved an elaborate ritual—we would wake up well before sunrise, 3 am or 4am. My mother would massage coconut oil into our hair in preparation of a Deepavali ritual bath. New clothes would then be distributed to every member of the family.
None of this held any importance—our focus was entirely on the firecrackers that could be inaugurated only after bathing and saying our prayers. All of this would be accomplished in extraordinary haste as there was intense competition on our street to be the first household to burst the inaugural Diwali firecracker (vedi in Tamil).
The stillness of early morning would be interrupted with an enormous boom of a Lakshmi vedi or Kuruvi vedi (names of popular firecrackers) and then as if on timer, porch lights in each house would turn on with children running out with to join the fun—a continuous sound and light show, interrupted only by a shouted Deepavali greeting across the street or neighbor’s yard.
The sounds would quieten as the sky grew lighter. Children from each house, dressed in their bright new clothes, would be sent with a plate of sweets to distribute through the neighborhood. Day time would be the time for family and feasting–an elaborate spread of food and sweets. We would each be given a teaspoon of a home-made digestive made only on Deepavli for sole purpose of counteracting the effects of over-indulgence. As dusk approached, children would hurry home for a second round of more firecrackers.
Some Deepavali rituals and traditions are easier to follow than others in South Orange. We still shop for clothes, but, fireworks, not at all. I still try to make at least one sweet and savory dish, but there is no neighborly exchange of treats come Deepavali morning. The family still sits lined in front of a prayer alter in the morning awaiting coconut oil in our hair and new clothes, but there is no parking ourselves in front of the TV in anticipation of the Deepavali special programs.
Deepavali is largely a private celebration, determined by day of the week, far larger in our minds than in actual practice. We regale our children with stories of how it was for us–waking up before the sun, a gathering of like minded friends, the continuous cacophony of sound, delicious food, greeting people everywhere–at home, on the street, at the temple–hoping to somehow share with them the bottomless euphoria of that day. We try to recreate some of it for our children. Instead of Deepavali being a festival of celebration concentrated all in one day, we extend it to a week–one weekend to another.
To our children, Deepavali means a party, sometimes more than one, not all on the same day. Friends gather together, all dressed up, wishing one another, there is an endless supply of sweets with no restrictions on consumption.
To those of us who have experienced Deepavali in India, all other celebrations feel like an imitation, somehow inauthentic. But, to our children, who know no other kind of celebration, the experience remains one that brings anticipation, joy, and excitement.”
“We celebrate Diwali also popularly known as Deepavali in Karnataka for 4 days.
Day 1. The evening. All the water containers are decorated and filled with water (probably due to the fact of lack of 24 hour running water in those days!)
Day 2. Narakachaturdashi. Morning everyone in the family got oil massage on head and had a bath and wore new clothes. Elders did pooja and youngsters were off to do fireworks. 💥! This went on till a delicious lunch was ready! Evening was again tons of fireworks with family, friends and neighbors.
Day 3. Amavasya. The goddess Lakshmi pooja.
Day 4. Balipadyami. We decorated front entrance of the house in honor of a ancient king of earth Bali. Belief is that he visits his kingdom earth every year on this day! Fireworks 💥 whole day again and delicious lunch dinner, and sweets!”
Uttar Pradesh, India
“In northern India, Diwali was celebrated over three days. We met friends, exchanged gifts of sweets and dry fruits, wore new clothes, went to the temple and set of firecrackers at night.
I will always remember this one particular Diwali when we were at Golden Temple in Amritsar. The temple was beautifully illuminated and as darkness set in, everyone sat around the pond to watch fireworks set off outside the temple. The reflection in the water was breathtaking.”
Tamil Nadu, India
“In our small town, Tirunelveli, celebrations started a week before Diwali.
In the days leading to Diwali, we were allowed to burst ‘Bijili,’ single shot firecrackers with very little sound.
On the day of Diwali, we got up at 5 a.m. after ganga snanam (a shower). Even my Amma (mother) started bursting Lakshmi Veddi (a type of firework). We were out all day having fun!
In the evening, it was time to visit aunts and uncles. There was always a competition about who’s house has the most exploded firecracker papers in the front (meaning who shot the most firecrackers).
Now, whenever my son goes back to Tirunelveli from New Jersey, my parents, in laws and his cousins treat it like Diwali. On the day he lands, they burst firecrackers. Unlike when I was young, firecrackers are available all through the year now. In New Jersey, for Diwali, we share our blessings with others.”
Uttar Pradesh, India
“It was the late 80s and early 90s. A few weeks before Diwali, many pop-up shops selling fireworks would sprout up. Some were just two wide shelves in front of stores.
You see those while going by, the plastic wrapper and the colorful labels underneath, shimmering under the yellow lamps. There were also huge warehouse type shops. My dad took me and my sister to one of those, and we’d order the fireworks by filling out a long form, writing how many of which ones we wanted. We would come home with bag of sparkles, flower pots and crackers.
Then it was a waiting game, of mounting anticipation. Here and there, we might light a few sparkles or set off a flower pot and watch the little cone sprout beads of golden yellow. But for the most part, we waited, counting the days to Diwali. We would go clothes shopping with my parents, and my mom made sweets and snacks, storing them in air-tight stainless steel containers.
The day before Diwali, we went to my uncle’s house in the next town. I had a cousin there, who was the same age as my sister, four years younger than me. Another uncle and a grandma and a great-aunt joined us too.
The three kids — my sister, cousin and I — would spend Diwali eve lighting up pots and chakras. A tall bronze lamp with an oil wick was set up in front of the house. We lit the sparkles using the flame of the lamp and then used the sparkles to light the flower pots and chakras. We hopped out of the way of chakras that seemed flail, nipping at our feet. My dad would gather all the family members and set off a big package that went up in the sky and came down in shimmering streaks. All around us, people would be doing the same thing. The distant sky glowing and a low rumble echoing from every direction.
On Diwali morning, way before dawn, my dad fired up a serial cracker, whose sequence of put-put sounds would wake us all up. Have fun kids, he’d say, and go back to sleep. We’d finish up the colorful fireworks like flower pots and sparkles. At sun up, we’ll step inside for breakfast, and then we’ll start up on the noisier crackers. Some were nothing more than a snap of a finger and other had a loud boom. Across the street from us was a half-constructed house that was abandoned. We’d wander through the chest-high walls, with incense sticks in our hand, and light up crackers. Then the game would change to hide-and-seek, and at some point we’ll return to the fireworks.
By twilight, by the end of Diwali, the front porches and the street and the half-constructed house would all be covered in bits of paper. We’d take a slow walk around the block, looking and stepping on the paper debris, white, red or covered in newsprint, some still retaining the curved shape of the crackers that they had been a part of.”
Diwali Fest NJ 2018 is coming soon. Learn more about how to attend and take part in this free cultural festival.