Indian communities all over the world celebrate Diwali, the Festival of Lights, every year between mid-October and mid-November. It is a 5-day festival that celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair. The origins of the word ‘Diwali’ can be found in the Sanskrit word ‘Deepavali’ where ‘deepa’ means ‘light’ and ‘vali’ means ‘row’; thus a row of lights – which is exactly what is seen in homes during this time: rows of light in celebration of the festival.
Some Background Information
Celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, each of these groups honours some historical figure. The Hindus, for instance, honour the memory of Lord Rama and his wife Sita who, according to legend, defeated the evil king Ravanna and returned after 14 years in exile to their kingdom in northern India. This happened in the 15th century B.C. In honour of their safe return, firework displays can be seen in many parts of the world where the festival is celebrated. Others believe Diwali is celebrated in honour of the union of the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, with Lord Vishnu. Therefore they leave the doors and windows to their homes open, thereby inviting Lakshmi in to spread wealth and good luck.
It is also a time when Indians buy new clothes, almost as if to welcome new beginnings and the year ahead.
Whatever one’s belief, it is a celebration of good over evil and heralds new, positive beginnings.
During the 5-day period, people’s homes are lit up by ‘diyas’ (earthen candles or small oil lamps); the exteriors are often decorated with electric lights. Inside the home one will find rangoli art which are patterns on the floor, created by either rice or coloured powder. It is also customary in many parts of the world to light up shop fronts, and not only homes. In some parts of the world, especially in India, beautiful displays of fireworks draw people to the streets to honour the memory of Lord Rama and Sita, his wife. It is believed that upon their return from exile, the locals in their kingdom celebrated the happy event with their own version of a fire display.
Neighbours exchange gifts, and the emphasis is often on sweets, dried fruit and other gifts. It is also a time to share with those in need and give freely to members of the community who have little. Another customary celebration that takes place happens on the fifth day when sisters and brothers celebrate with their favourite meals. This symbolises the brother’s duty to protect his sister, and the sister’s blessings and gratitude for the brother(s) in her life.
Celebrated the World Over
Diwali is one of the most important festivals on the Indian calendar and is celebrated throughout India and all ex-pat Indian communities everywhere. In some countries it is an official holiday. Those include Fiji, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Suriname, many parts of Africa, the US and of course, India. In the UK, for instance, there are huge celebrations in Leicester, which sees one of the biggest Diwali celebrations outside of India every year. A 110-foot Ferris Wheel is one of the main attractions for the public. Expect more celebrations in Hertfordshire, Coventry, Manchester, Northampton and Birmingham, among some.
Diwali in London
In London, with a large Indian community, celebrations normally take place in quite a number of locations. Fantastic light displays, music and henna painting (a popular body paint technique among many Indians) make the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square a must-visit. For the 2016 celebrations London Mayor Sadiq Khan lit a Diwali lamp in Trafalgar Square. He is quoted, ‘’ London is open to all people and all communities – we don’t just tolerate each other’s differences, we embrace them.’’ You can also visit the nearby eateries for typical Diwali treats and other Indian cuisine. Canada Place, Canary Wharf, is the place to visit out East if you find yourself in that area during the festival. Here you are treated to art displays and Bollywood performances. One of the biggest Diwali and Hindu New Year celebrations is found in the north, at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden.
It’s About Light
The very essence of Diwali is to bring light in, to experience the triumph of good over evil forces. The Festival of Lights does just that: It lights up the homes and hearts of communities all over the world. It celebrates everything that is good, kind and positive.