Beliefnet
Reprinted with permission of The Tablet.

When winter begins in India, the dawn becomes lightly touched with frost, the trees straighten up and a soft new light appears. The summer's harrowing heat and its thundering monsoon give way to Kartik, the golden season of October and November. It is a season of silky sunlight and blossoming trees, when the subcontinent bursts into flaming flower and the gods prepare the earth so they may descend to it in relative comfort. When the chrysanthemums erupt, it is the time of festival.

Diwali is the festival of light. Celebrated at the end of the dark fortnight of the Amavasya or the waning moon, it is usually held at the end of October or beginning of November. Diwali comes from the Sanskrit deepavali, meaning "row of lamps"; it is a time of remembrance, feasts, fireworks, forgiveness and a renewal of life. Life takes on a delicious newness; as the sun turns honey-gold, there is the shivering anticipation on the edges of every starlit evening of winter waiting to return.

Clay lamps are lined up along verandahs, on windowsills, along driveways, in gardens and courtyards. On the terraces, lamps and candles are placed as far back from the ledge as possible so they do not die from the breeze and plunge the house into inauspicious darkness. The prayer room is swept and swabbed until it gleams defiantly in the face of every disapproving mother-in-law. New clothes, dried fruit and nuts, boxes of pistachios, cashews and raisins are wrapped for relatives and friends. Plates of sweets are kept ready for guests, among them laddoo (balls of chickpea flour), payesh (thickened milk sweetened with jaggery sugar and rice), barfi (thickened, boiled-down milk) and jalebis (twirls of fried sugar).

At night the electric lights are switched off. Small quiet flames gleam under giant trees. Along wayside shrines, candles flicker amid bunches of marigolds. People bring offerings of flowers, rice grains and candles, and leave them on bridges, by the sides of lakes and in front of their homes. While people sleep, Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, and Ganesh, god of well-being, might emerge from the candle-lit darkness.

My earliest memories of Diwali are of my mother creating rangolis - geometric and floral patterns made from coloured rice flour - at the entrance to the house. My job was to paint two little squiggles on either side of the stairs which led to the upper floor of our house. The squiggles were meant to be the little feet of Lakshmi, who trips into homes at night during Diwali to survey family fortunes and decide whether they need a boost. The little squiggles had to be painted all along the stairs and up into the prayer room in case the goddess lost her way.

I took enormous pains over my task. Using a mixture of rice flour and water and a rag twirled into a nib, I would bend over my squiggles for hours, recreating the short fat "S", its crown decorated with five little lines for toes. The noise of the loudspeakers in the bazaar and the smells of hot oil would fade as I worked my way slowly up the stairs, down the landing, and into the prayer room, painting the goddess's feet as I went, and thinking how calm and flat the stairs were, and wondering where her shadow would fall when she stole up the stairs in the dead of night. But I never saw her shadow, only my own. During Diwali little girls lie in bed waiting for goddesses, but as they fall asleep they realise that perhaps they were never very far away in the first place.

In the evenings lit only by candles, generational hatreds seems to somehow dissolve in the softness of the light. When mother and daughter bend to light lamps together, the tradition passes almost tangibly from older to younger: take comfort from me, because even after I am gone, I will burn here in these candles. Around the lamps sits an arc of illuminated quiet, a shimmering oval of night, encircling parent and child in the presence of an unobtrusive yet powerful glow. Children bend to touch the feet of visiting grandparents. A father swings his son into the air, then presses the little boy's face close to his own. Free of the harsh, joyless light of electricity, we can wrap ourselves in humanity.

Diwali holidays are gloriously festive. Streets are strung with bright lights and paper lanterns, markets dress in shimmering golden streamers, and fairy lights wind around trees. These days, the trend is towards flashing fluorescent neon and revolving strobe lights on newly acquired rich homes. But candles and lamps are still everywhere, as are paper lanterns, brass lamp-stands and imitation silver candlesticks. The customary Lakshmi Puja or a prayer to goddess Lakshmi is held in almost all homes; temple bells ring out in every neighborhood.

A Diwali day begins with a bath using sandalwood and oil. In parts of south India, the bath must take place at the very wink of dawn because family and friends could start to arrive at the earliest hours. Then come the feasts, breakfast with grandparents, lunches with friends, and evening card games. In north India, Diwali is celebrated as a time when King Rama returns home after victories in war; the houses are decorated to welcome him and the streets are strewn with rose petals. Among the robust merchant princes of the state of Gujarat, Diwali is a time of extremely pious capitalism. After prayers, this is the time to begin renovations on shops, forgive old business acquaintances their past misdeeds and send them boxes of dry fruit. Maybe, if the stars are right, it is also the time to start a small company. In Bengal, Diwali means prayers to goddess Kali, the fearsome deity who slew an army of demons: at the famous Kalighat temple in Calcutta thousands queue up with lamps and marigolds.

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