The festival of Diwali marks the beginning of the new year in the Hindu calendar. This year the festival falls on October nineteenth, and will be celebrated by Hindus worldwide.
I was a young bride in India on the first time that I celebrated Diwali. Pradeep and I had been married for only a week, and my life felt very confusing. We were staying with my parents-in-law, and I couldn’t communicate with either his mother or grandmother because of the language barrier. But I soon got swept up into the preparations for the festival. We all went on a shopping trip to the market, which was crowded with shoppers, and bursting with colour and noise. Pradeep’s mother bought new clothes for each family member, stacks of brightly wrapped boxes of sweets, and dozens of small clay lamps. She then stopped in front of a stall that was laden with little statues of Ganesh, the elephant-headed God who symbolizes new beginnings, and Laxsmi, the beautiful goddess of prosperity, and selected one of each. Meanwhile Pradeep purchased a large number of firecrackers, and I could tell by the sparkle in his eyes that this was still a fascinating activity for him.
When we got home, I sat with Pradeep’s grandmother and we filled the little clay lamps with oil, and added a cotton wick to each of them. As darkness fell, we lit the lamps and placed them all around the house, and on the wall surrounding the front yard. Pradeep and I climbed the stairs to the flat roof of the house. From here we could see thousands of tiny flickering lights in all the houses around us, making even the most humble abode look magical.
Another lovely Diwali tradition is the creation of a rangoli, a traditional art form created by women of the household, using simple materials such as coloured rice or sand, and flower petals. The rangoli is made on the floor of living rooms or courtyards, as a decoration and celebration. Using a white material like sand, paint or flour, the artist marks a centre-point on the ground and then adds cardinal points around it, usually in a hexagon or a circle. After that, an increasingly intricate pattern is created. Rangoli designs are dazzling in scope and variety, with particular styles unique to certain regions in India. When we lived in India, one of our nurses was from the state of Kerala in south India, and she would create magnificent rangolis that looked quite different from the ones we’d seen in north India. Some families have created unique Rangoli designs that are passed from generation to generation, keeping this art form alive.
Diwali is a festival of light, of hope and of joy. Worldwide, there are many great festivals of light. In the Jewish tradition, Hanukkah marks that time when the scarce supply of sacred oil miraculously burned for eight days in Jerusalem’s holy temple, in the second century BC. In the Christian tradition, the star of Bethlehem is an enduring symbol of hope and the renewal of faith at the darkest time of the year. There are so many other examples: The African American festival of Kwanzaa, where people light a candelabra representing seven great principles including unity, creativity and faith. During the Lantern festival in China, people launch shimmering paper lanterns that fill the night sky. The pagan festival of Imbolc is celebrated with the lighting of fires. The great theme in all of these festivals is that in dark times, the light will return.
Happy Diwali, everyone!