By YC Chin
Deepavali is the Indian festival of lights, and is often marked by a dazzling spectacle of candles and oil lamps being set up at home and around the community. It is one of the most important Hindu festivals in the year, often being compared to Christmas. Falling on 11 November this year, Deepavali (sometimes called Diwali) is a religious festival celebrated by Hindus all over the world. Hinduism is the world’s third most popular religion, with over 800 million followers all over the world. As such it is celebrated not just in Indian-majority countries, but countries like Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia also celebrate it, and have gazetted the festival as a public holiday.
Much like Western holidays such as Christmas and Easter, the Indian festival is celebrated in many different ways across many different countries. But generally speaking, on a spiritual level in Hindu folklore the festival symbolises the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair.
The specific stories behind the festival supposedly come from ancient Hindu epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata. Some believe the festival commemorates the marriage of Lakshmi with Lord Vishnu. Whereas in Bengal the festival is dedicated to the worship of Mother Kali, the dark goddess of strength. Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed God, the symbol of auspiciousness and wisdom, is also worshipped in most Hindu homes on this day.
Deepavali is a five-day celebration with elaborate rituals and practices. Indian families mark the occasion with fanciful sand paintings in front of their doors, and adorn their homes with candles. Gold is also very often used as a form of decoration, a striking symbol of prosperity and wealth. A recent The Economist article examined the Indian obsession with gold, and it reveals an ingrained cultural leaning towards the acquisition of gold as a symbol of status. It is true for this festival as well, with gold ornaments and gold jewellery seen being worn by Indian women.
This festival is also when you would see the traditional henna tattoos being used, as it’s another form of adornment that Indian women tend to make use of. Interestingly, even with Singapore and Malaysia being so multicultural, it is commonplace to see Indians dressed in traditional clothing, such as saris. Other rituals include the washing of one’s hair with oils, and relatives would visit each other and feast. Fireworks are also often used to mark the occasion.
In Singapore and Malaysia, Deepavali is a nationally recognised public holiday. In these countries there are lights and huge displays set up, especially concentrated in the area of Little India. Because these countries are officially multicultural (with different traditional ethnic holidays enshrined as national holidays), it celebrates the festival despite having majority Chinese and majority Malay communities respectively. Realistically, this translates to visiting your Indian friends’ houses over the holiday period and interacting with their families, even if you weren’t Indian, which adds a nice layer of community within these societies.
However, like any big holiday, it is true that the holiday is becoming increasingly commercialised in the way that Christmas is in the West. Of course it doesn’t necessarily cheapen it or reduce the festival’s significance, but it is poignant to see shopping malls and restaurants offer ‘Deepavali sales’ to try and scoop up as many holiday shoppers as possible. As a result, for the majority of people who don’t celebrate it or treat it as importantly as the Indian community might, they might end up treating it as just another holiday. But that shouldn’t stop anyone from wishing their Indian friends a happy Diwali, and paying them a visit in their homes. In the end, we can only benefit from enjoying the diversity that comes about due to the multicultural nature of society.
Photograph: peddhapati via Wikimedia Commons