Lighting the Lamps for Diwali... At Home and Abroad

It may not be the monthlong, raucous Diwali they had in India, but Hindus in the U.S still make this important holiday special.

BY: Lavina Melwani

 
You can get dizzy trying to keep track of the legends associated with Diwali. But for many Hindus, the festival--which begins on October 25 this year--marks the moment when Rama, fresh from killing the demon king Ravana, returned victorious to the kingdom of Ayodhya. In southern India, this festival has another legend connected with it, in which Lord Krishna, the celestial cowherd, vanquishes the demon Narakasura. Others point to the story of Narasimha, the half man-half lion incarnation of Vishnu who slew the evil Hiranyakshipu at the precise moment of twilight.

For all its pomp and flair, Diwali (also known as Deepavali) is in some ways a very personal festival. Each Hindu family follows its own traditions and orchestrates its own drama, preparing festival sweets by hand, offering prayers at the family shrine, and then celebrating with relatives and close friends. For business people, Diwali is the beginning of the Hindu New Year, and they perform chopda pujan, or veneration of their business books.

Though mainstream Americans may just be getting to know this joyous festival, Indian-Americans have wonderful memories of childhood Diwalis. Those who grew up in India often try to recreate those treasured celebrations here in America. In India, Diwali was a kaleidoscope of lights, earthen lamps glowing in even the humblest of homes, exploding fireworks, and mounds of multicolored sweets.

For Ambalika Mishra--a reporter with Voice of America and U.N. Radio who also anchors an ethnic TV program on cable--nothing can duplicate the magical mood and spirit of Diwali during her childhood in the city of Agra.

"In the bazaars, you would be surrounded by myriad of clay gods and goddesses, shining metal utensils, and earthen lamps. It was not about buying things but about being a part of that whole atmosphere. It just cannot be recreated here, and I miss that a lot."

In her hometown of Agra, the houses would be fully repainted for the festival, and the smell of fresh paint always evokes the memory of Diwalis past for Mishra.

"We used to order hundreds of diyas [earthen lamps] and would put them everywhere, and they would light up the night," she said. "My job was to make alpana, or floral patterns on the floor, with colored powders, rice, and flour. This was considered very auspicious, and we would keep a diya burning all night for the Goddess Lakshmi to enter by."

Now in the hurly-burly of New York, she tries very hard to recreate some of the old Diwali magic. She makes sweets at home, and two days before Diwali she observes Dhantheras, when special prayers are offered to Lakshmi, the Goddess of Prosperity. On this day, devotees buy token amounts of gold or silver to ensure continued prosperity, and Mishra has continued to observe this tradition for the 28 years she has been in America.

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