A Personal Journey through Light, Love, and Celebration
As an introduction to Diwali, it is to the Hindu’s what Christmas would be to the Christian’s. It is referred to as the festival of lights, owing to homes being lit up with candles and lights. Spiritually it symbolises the victory of good over evil, and the start of a new era, under the rule of Lord Ram - Ram Raj.
Ram who is the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of life from the holy trinity, is one of the most revered figures in Hindu mythology. He is known for his righteousness, bravery and devotion to his duty.
The story comes from one of the two main Hindu epics, the Ramayana, penned by the sage Valmiki. Diwali is the day when Ram, his wife Sita, and brother Lakshman, return to their home town of Ayodhya after spending fourteen years in exile, and having defeated the demon king Ravana, with the help of Hanuman, the Monkey God.
Ram, the eldest of four son’s, had been sent to exile at the demand of his stepmother, who wanted to see her son Bharat, become King. Ram’s father, the King had once promised to grant her any two wishes she desired, so she demanded that Ram be banished and Bharat be crowned. The King had to keep his word to his wife and ordered Ram's banishment. Ram accepted his father's decree unquestioningly, being the dutiful son he was.
The vanquishing of Ravana, the King of Sri Lanka, who had abducted Sita, from the forest where she had accompanied her husband to exile, by Ram and Hanuman with his army of monkey’s is celebrated twenty days prior on Dusshera, when effigies of Ravana are set alight at every street corner.
Diwali arrives twenty days later, always on a new moon night, and everyone decorates their homes with lights to guide Ram, Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman home, after their victory. On a different level, it symbolises banishing darkness and moving into the light, dispelling ignorance and attaining wisdom, and a time of renewal.
I first experienced Diwali as a child, having arrived in India aged 5 years. Typically, the weather at this time in Lucknow starts cooling down after the blistering summer months, and there is a slight chill in the air at nights which heralds the start of winter. During Dusshera, we would walk out in our neighbourhood and see these very large, tall (and slightly scary) looking effigies being set alight – I remember the smell of burning paper and smoke in the cool night air. It also marked the start of the partying.
At Diwali, even as Parsi’s, we would join in the celebrations. That was the beauty of growing up in Lucknow, all of us from different faiths and religions, Parsis, Christians, Muslims and Hindus coming together to celebrate Diwali. Granny would get the house cleaned and painted, we would light the diya’s and candles to illuminate our home, buy new clothes to wear, and enjoy large feasts of food and sweets with friends. Indian sweets are known to be quite sugary, the gulab jamun that tastes best hot, the orange swirls of jalebi or imarti that we would combine with fresh rabri, the lal pera that Mum loved, and endless varieties of barfi that weighed the table down. I relished the kheer made at the homes of the friends we visited.
Mum’s group of friends would take turns to host the firework display, which we as children, looked forward to with excitement. The sound of the pop, crack, hiss and the slight smell of sulphur in the night air before the burst of sparks and as if by magic, the sky was lit up with a variety of beautiful shapes.
Diwali is also associated with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and Ganesha, the god of wisdom and the remover of obstacles. As part of the celebrations, it is traditional and considered auspicious to gamble a little, to invoke the blessings of goddess Lakshmi, and invite wealth and prosperity into one’s home. Mum, and her friends, who enjoyed a party at the best of times, would use this custom to plan all-night card games, starting from Dusshera and ending well after Diwali.
In preparation of these card games, the front room at the host / hostess’s home would be cleared out, mattresses placed and covered in white linen, with bolsters and cushions, to create a low seating area for the games. Strings of aromatic flowers, chameli and bela, brought in for the ladies to twine around their wrists or into their hair, music playing in the background and an abundance of food and drinks flowed throughout the night. There would be different groups of card players, based on the stakes at the ‘table’. Anytime someone won a big hand, we as kids, if we were still up and around, would get a little ‘treat’ to add to our ‘piggy bank’.
These card games were taken very seriously, with superstitions and rituals. Mum would always have her nazar removed, to ward of the evil eye before leaving, and as she was heading out the door, we were not allowed to call out to her, which would force her to ‘look back’ instead of moving forwards, nor were we allowed to ask for money, which would force her to open her wallet and allow money to ‘flow out’ instead of into the wallet.
However, the very best aspect of Diwali for me as a child was that Mum would be awake to have breakfast with me before I left for school. She would arrive back from her all-night card games, just as I was waking up. We would have breakfast together, and then I would head out to school, and she would go to bed!
Many years later, after I had moved to London, when visiting Lucknow over Diwali, Mum and I went shopping for saris for us. I have a love of bandhini, a Rajasthani style of tie-dye and leheriya, which is a style of dying fabric inspired by natural patterns made by the wind blowing across the desert sands of Rajasthan. I was drawn to a sari with colours strewn across a white background, while Mum insisted that I should wear a bright colour for Diwali as it was more auspicious, and selected a rani-pink sari for me, which after much protesting on my part, and convincing on hers, I bought and wore to make her happy. I still have this sari, and have never worn it since, but every time I see it, I smile at the memory of our shopping trip.
For me, Diwali will always be indelibly associated with Mum, her love of the festival, and joy in the celebrations!
I wish you and all your loved ones, near and far, a very Happy Diwali.