Ringing In Diwali

This guide illuminates the rich food, customs and celebrations of the ancient Hindu festival of lights.
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As of yesterday, Hindu households the world over will have donned their newest and finest clothes and feasted on the most delectable of sweets to usher in the high holiday of Diwali.

They have painted religious symbols on the front porches of their houses with moistened red turmeric powder and sprinkled colored sand into rangoli patterns on their doorsteps in an effort to welcome the goddess Lakshmi, the bearer of wealth and good fortune, into their homes.

Hindus will have prepared to welcome the Lakshmi weeks before, cleaning and organizing their houses from top to bottom.

They also light rows of

diyas

, or clay oil lamps, throughout their homes, as well as firecrackers outside; the goddess is said to only visit those houses which are clean and brightly lit.

The more pious wake at the crack of dawn to go to temple, carrying food offerings for the deities -- just like any other Hindu holiday, Diwali is spiritual in nature and is based on historical scriptures.

A Rich Tradition

Diwali is actually a modification of the Sanskrit word

Deepavali

, which literally means "lines of earthen lamps," and is an ancient celebration of the victory of good over evil.

It is said that on this day, Lord Rama killed the demon Ravana after a 14-year battle in the wilderness, returning home only by the help of people who lit oil lamps to guide his way through the darkness.

It is also a celebration of Lord Krishna and his wife Satyabhama's slaying of the evil demon Narakasura.

Diwali, or the Festival of Lights, lasts for five consecutive days, with each day consisting of its own rituals and customs. It takes place this year from Oct. 19 to 23.

The first day of the festival,

Dhan Teras

, falls on the 13th day of the Hindu month Ashwin.

On this day, Hindus celebrate and call on the goddess Lakshmi; they put lamps on porches and windows to help Lakshmi find their houses and to ward off bad spirits. They sing devotional songs and offer sweets to the deity, so she may bless their homes with wealth and prosperity for the coming year.

As Hindus consider this day to be auspicious, they usually purchase gold and silver or kitchen utensils on this first day as well.

On the second day of Diwali, known as

Kali Chaudas

, prayers are dedicated to Kali or Shakti, the goddess of strength, and Lord Hanuman to protect against laziness and evil. Some people wear

kajal

, or black eyeliner, on this day to keep away

Kali Nazar

, the evil eye of jealousy and misfortune.

On the third day -- Diwali day, or New Year's Eve -- in addition to once again appealing to Lakshmi, people also perform a ritual known as

Chopda Pujan

.

In accordance with this ceremony, businessmen and merchants place their new account books in front of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, Lord Ganesh, the god of wisdom and good fortune, and Lakshmi, and pray for a successful and bountiful year.

Children perform the same ritual using their school books, appealing to Ganesh and Saraswati for year full of knowledge.

A Sweet Celebration

New Year's Day, the fourth day, is spent visiting homes of friends, family and neighbors.

All feast on countless homemade and store-bought sweets and traditional dishes while little children run around touching the feet of elders to collect money and gifts.

People also spend time in Hindu temples, singing songs and offering up hundreds, if not thousands, of delicious homemade dishes to deities.

Diwali is synonymous with food delights and feasts, and a time when Hindu households are overcome with abundant savory and sweet Indian dishes.

People generally start their planning of traditional foods days in advance, and continue to cook and bake as the festival progresses.

While some dishes take a few hours to prepare, the more elaborate ones take days.

Kheer

, or creamy rice pudding studded with cardamom and pistachios, is a classic Diwali dish and one of the simplest to prepare.

However, other holiday delicacies -- such as

gulab jamuns

, fried golden brown dough balls in fragrant, warm sugar syrup, flavored with cardamom seeds, rosewater and saffron; and bright orange

jalbis

, deep-fried, syrup-soaked, pretzel-shaped sweets -- generally take longer to make.

Other traditional favorites include

gajar halva

, or carrot pudding, and

lapsee

, a wheat-based sweet dish with almonds and pistachios.

Family Ties

On the final day of Diwali, known as

Bhai-Bij

-- one of the two festivals in the Indian calendar year which celebrates the bonds of sisters and brothers -- sisters invite brothers to their homes and prepare their favorite dishes for an extravagant celebration.

When a brother first arrives, his sister performs a ceremony in which she blesses him by applying a red

tika

, or dot, on the brother's forehead with turmeric paste.

Based on the legend that after killing Narakasura, Lord Krishna went to his sister Subhadra's home, where she welcomed and showered him with sweets and flowers, this ritual is a sign of the sister's love, well wishes and prayers for her brother to live a long and happy life.

The brother, in turn, bestows his sister with gifts or money to show his appreciation and affection.

In addition to being a time of new beginnings for Hindus, Diwali season is also a time to spend with loved ones and strengthen friendships, a time to celebrate the accomplishments of the past year and pray for good fortune in the coming year.

It is a time to exchange presents, eat, be merry -- and truly appreciate The Good Life.