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Festival of Lights Print E-mail
Lenny Balston   
Monday, 24 October 2005


Diwali, or Deepavali to give it its full name, is one of the most celebrated festivals in the Hindu calendar. It is often referred to as 'the festival of lights' and represents a symbolic victory of good over evil. Because the Hindu calendar is based on the lunar cycle Diwali usually falls on the New Moon day around late October or early November, this year it is being celebrated on the 1st November.

No-one seems to know for sure how Diwali started but it is believed to have originated from a harvest festival many thousands of years ago. When the harvesting of the crops was complete, the people knew they were taken care of for another year and reflected their joy in the illumination of countless lamps and in the making of delicacies from the rice of the fresh harvest. This custom is still observed in both rural and urban areas of India today.

For farmers the end of the harvest also marked the beginning of a New Year, so many people today treat Diwali as New Year even though the Hindu New Year is actually in April.

There are many myths surrounding the origin of Diwali, the most popular of which is the story of Lord Rama.

According to the epic Ramayana, Lord Rama, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshman, were exiled from the kingdom of Ayodhya and lived in the forest for 14 years. While in the forest, Sita was captured by the demon Ravana. A fierce war ensued which culminated in Rama defeating Ravana, and saving his wife.

Upon their return to Ayodhya the kingdom's people were overjoyed at Queen Sita's rescue and the safe return of their King. As part of their celebrations they lit the night skies with clay lamps and fireworks to guide Rama on his path home. It is these celebrations that give the festival it's name with the word Deepavali originating from two Sanskrit words 'Deepa' which means 'light' and 'Avali' which means 'a row'.

The celebrations
Hinduism has many different branches and so Diwali is celebrated in many different ways. In India Diwali is celebrated over five days with each day having different meanings and rituals associated with it and is dedicated to different Gods. On the first day for example houses are decorated to welcome Laksmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity.

In South Africa, the celebrations are a bit more toned down. Most people celebrate Diwali for one day but will light clay lamps (candles and electric lights are also used) for two days prior. The day itself starts with cleansing; some people include the use of sweet oil in their bath to anoint various parts of the body like the hair and ears, others dress in new clothes, homes are thoroughly cleaned and doorways are decorated with garlands made from marigolds and mango leaves. A prayer is also performed in the morning to thank the Goddess Laksmi.

In the days leading up to Diwali, sweet and savoury delicacies are prepared. On Diwali these are shared with friends, family and neighbours. Don't be surprised if your Hindu neighbours whom you have never met before drop by with a plate of something sweet. In the afternoon people will go to the temple for a prayer. In the evening families gather together and celebrate. Lamps are lit all around the home, especially by entrances, and the sky is illuminated with fireworks.

Diwali on the whole has always had more social than religious connotations. It is a time when differences are forgotten and people come together.

If you are away from the festivities of Diwali, light a candle or lamp, shut your eyes and spend some time thinking about the many joys of the world and look forward to the future.

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