Light has a special significance in celebrations around the world, and Divali, though celebrated in diverse ways, is dominated by lights! The first day, “Dhanteras”, is associated with wealth, when it is believed that buying or starting something new ensures wealth throughout the year! Follow the tradition and buy gold and silver jewelry, precious stones, utensils or household goods! Lamps are left burning all night, anticipating the visit of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty. It is customary to get rid of junk and clutter, paint the house and decorate it with lights, flowers and colorful designs on the floor. Folklore describes Poverty as a male derelict who lives in dark corners and cluttered homes, while Lakshmi resides in well lit, clean homes. If you visit an Indian home, you will find small footprints of the goddess drawn with rice flour.
The traditions of burning lamps and buying jewelry have an interesting origin. It was predicted that a prince would die on the fourth day of his marriage. His wife kept him awake all night with story telling and singing. She piled heaps of gold and silver coins, and lit big lamps around the palace. The God of death came disguised as a serpent, but his eyes were so bedazzled with the lights and flash of metals that he turned away!
The second day is “Choti” (small) Divali in north India, before the main celebrations the next day, but celebrations have begun in parts of South India, to commemorate the killing of a demon by Lord Krishna. People take an “oil bath” before sunrise, and wear new clothes. In West Bengal (Eastern India), you can see the goddess Kali being worshipped at midnight. It also heralds a period of remembrance of departed souls. Lamps are supposed to guide the spirits during the dark night. Earthen lamps are floated in rivers/streams, and if they are not extinguished or float back to the shore, the coming year will be prosperous!
Apart from worshipping Goddess Lakshmi, North India celebrates an event from the epic Ramayana. After a long exile and victory over the demon King Ravana of Sri Lanka, Lord Rama returned home on a dark night, so his subjects lit oil lamps to welcome him and light the way. Do not be surprised if north Indian friends invite you for a night of gambling! The belief is that Goddess Parvati played dice with Lord Shiva, so gambling on this day ensures prosperity throughout the year!
On the fourth day or “Annakoot” in North India, plan a visit to a temple! Annakoot means “mountain of food” and 56 or 108 dishes are offered to Lord Krishna, and then distributed to worshippers. In parts of South India, people again buy precious metals, in the belief that whatever is bought on this day multiplies! Villagers pray for rain, their cattle and agricultural tools. Try a special sweet made of jaggery, pulses, flour and “ghee”/clarified butter!
On the final day, brothers and sisters meet and exchange gifts, celebrating the close bond between the god of death and his sister. The latter gave him sweets when he visited, and applied a mark on his forehead, while he promised that brothers visiting their sisters on this day would be blessed with long life. Therefore, if an Indian woman puts a mark of sandalwood paste or vermilion powder on your forehead, consider it a protection against danger and death.
No matter which part of the country you visit, you will hear Divali described variously as a victory of light and knowledge over darkness and ignorance, a celebration to mark the renewal of life, and the beginning of winter and the sowing season. Wearing new clothes and buying household things are symbolic. Divali is also the New Year in the Hindu calendar and the end of the financial calendar for merchants, so you will see fresh account books placed before the image of Goddess Lakshmi, before being used.
Make the most of the festival season to taste special sweets, and enjoy the firecrackers! The latter may be jarring, but the loud noises are considered essential to chase away evil spirits!
Though oil lamps are sometimes replaced by candles and electric lights, you will see many traditional lamps, alongside strings of multi-colored lights, making Divali the brightest and literally the most dazzling festival of India!
Festivals of India: National Book Trust, India