Diwali (Dīvali, Dīpāwali, or Deepavali), is the Hindu festival of light. One of the most popular of all the South Asian religious celebrations, Diwali begins on the 15th day of the month of Kartika in the Hindu calendar, and is extended over five days. This year it will be celebrated on 23rd October.
The observance of Diwali honours Rama-Chandra, the seventh incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. It is believed that on this day Rama returned, victorious, to his people after 14 years of battling the demon king, Ravana.
To celebrate Rama’s success, Hindu’s light up their houses to declare the victory of good over evil, light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance. Light, in the guise of fireworks, lamps, candles and bonfires, is used to symbolise the festival. The word “Deepawali” itself means “a row or cluster of lights.” In India oil lamps are often floated across the river Ganges. It is regarded as a good omen if the lamp travelled across the river without sinking.
Alongside the lifting of spiritual darkness by Rama, the goddess Lakshmi (who symbolizes wealth, happiness and prosperity), is also worshipped during the Diwali festivities. Hindu’s believe that Lakshmi roams the earth during Diwali, entering every house that is pure, clean, and bright. Consequently, during Diwali homes are spring cleaned, candles are lit in windowsills, and assorted temptingly aromatic sweets and savouries are baked. Sometimes windows and doors of homes are left open so that Lakshmi can come in.
Hindu’s dress in their finest clothes for Diwali, and sometimes the women have their palms decorated with mehendi. This is a temporary henna decoration, which looks a little like an intricate tattoo.
Diwali is the most publically celebrated Hindu festival within the UK. Hinduism is the second largest non-Christian religious society in Britain, with more than half a million Hindus comprising one percent of the total population. In many towns and cities such as Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Leicester, Diwali is celebrated with firework displays, dances, plays, street lighting, lanterns, traditional Indian food, the exchanging of gifts and the playing of music.
The Times of India sums up the modern meaning of Diwali: “Regardless of the mythological explanation one prefers, what the festival of lights really stands for today is a reaffirmation of hope, a renewed commitment to friendship and goodwill, and a religiously sanctioned celebration of the simple – and some not so simple – joys of life.”
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.