Diwali, the most significant and certainly one of the happiest and most beautiful festivals of the year in India, concluded last weekend. Diwali celebrates the triumph of light over dark, good over evil, and hope over despair. Celebrated by nearly one billion people around the world, the holiday includes the symbolic burning of candles and lamps, the giving of gifts, and numerous social gatherings.
Since most of us at Dandelion Chandelier have never experienced Diwali firsthand, one of our far-flung correspondents filled us in on how she celebrated the holiday this year, as did some of our wealthy friends in India. It sounds absolutely magical.
The 5-day celebration of Diwali is the equivalent of Christmas in terms of importance in India, and like many other holidays around the world toward year’s end, it is a festival of light. In addition to Hindus, Diwali is celebrated by Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs in not just India, but also Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, and several other countries. The specifics of the celebration vary among religions and regions, and even within India there are important regional differences in holiday traditions.
For example, for Hindus in northern India, Diwali marks the return after 14 years of exile of Lord Ram – a legendary figure and hero of the epic Mahabharata, he is believed to be a re-incarnation of a god. Tradition has it that Lord Ram made his return to Ayodhya on a dark night, and his subjects lit his way back with terra-cotta ghee (oil) lamps (called diyas).
Other celebrants attribute the holiday to the worship of one or more Hindu deities, including Lord Ganesh (the remover of obstacles and signifier of a fresh start), and Goddess Lakshmi (or Laxshmi), the Hindu goddess of prosperity. The focus on light in this tradition apparently comes from the belief that Lakshmi returns to earth in search of the cleanest and brightest house, in which she will eliminate all negative energies and confer blessings on the family. As a result, observers ensure that their homes are spotlessly clean, a broom is kept nearby when prayers are offered, lamps are lit, and doors are left open to welcome her in.
Some Hindus also celebrate Diwali as the start of the New Year, reinforcing the focus on prayers for prosperity and successful new beginnings.
Despite these regional differences, in celebration of Diwali nearly every house in India is lit with oil or electric lights or lanterns. In addition to millions of lights shining from rooftops and windows, there are fireworks every night. Celebrations start days before Diwali itself with parties, usually at people’s homes.
Diwali parties involve gatherings of family and friends, where diyas, candles and firecrackers are lit. Wealthy families hold their own fireworks shows. Some parties are open houses, with friends dropping by over the course of several hours. In the homes of the wealthy, the choicest wines and spirits are served, along with a wide variety of food. Traditional mithai (sweets) served for the holiday in India include besan laddu (ball-shaped treats made of chick pea flour, sugar and ghee), gujhias (sweet dumplings filled with dry fruit and condensed milk, called khoya), and barfi (made with khoya, sugar, fruit, nuts and spices).
A wonderful friend of mine who lives in New Delhi hosted a Diwali party for 800 people the weekend before the holiday at her home this year. She said it started at 9:30P and ended at 8:00A the next morning, complete with a fireworks show (she also hosted Diwali dinner at her home with 45 guests). Another friend notes that the Diwali parties at the home of the Shriram family, owners of the DCM business empire, are legendary. Our Dandelion Chandelier correspondent echoed that theme, saying that for wealthy people in India, a great deal of the focus is on socializing and being with family and friends. The heart of the holiday is not in public celebrations but in celebrants’ homes or places of business; to fully experience the holiday, your best bet as a visitor is to tag along with a close friend.
Some people still exchange Diwali cards (a younger friend says that he now sends messages on WhatsApp to family and friends). Traditionally, only children received gifts on the holiday; today everyone gets beautifully-wrapped presents. Generally, it’s not just one gift, but several, and they might include sweets, fresh or dried fruit in red cellophane wrappers, and silver coins. It is common to give money instead of other presents; in some traditions, the monetary gift amount never ends with a “0,” but rather with a “1” (101, 1001) because it is thought to bring good luck.
Dhanteras (the Festival of Wealth) is celebrated two days before Diwali; on this day one buys metal (but not iron), frequently a new item for the home. The wealthy buy precious metals like gold and silver, and some also buy diamond jewelry. Our correspondent tells us that the classic tradition is to purchase and give something gold (for people with less wealth, the norm is to buy stainless steel).
Over 60% of the revenue for the year for tableware companies in India comes during Diwali. Ceramics and glassware are key categories both for self-use and for gifts. Luxury gift ideas include sterling silver tea sets and candlesticks; a sterling silver figurine of Lord Ganesh; a silver and gold puja thali, kalash and bell (all to be used in Diwali religious ceremonies); crystal bowls; hand-woven carpets; and hand-crafted jewelry boxes made of gold, ceramic and crystal. Sales of luxury cars spike during Diwali (this year the press in India breathlessly reported on Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi giving his father Suresh a luxury SUV as a gift).
As in many other geographies, online shopping is sky-rocketing as the preferred means of buying holiday gifts. Amazon India, Flipkart, Snapdeal, Shopclues and Paytm (owned by Alibaba) all started their “mega-sales” for Diwali about a month in advance this year, and there is fierce competition every year over who starts the sale period, and for how long it lasts.
Dhanteras is considered to be a very auspicious day for wealth creation; as a result, business leaders open their accounting books that day, and the Diwali festival marks the beginning of the new fiscal year for Indian businesses throughout the world.
Places of work are almost always a meaningful part of Diwali celebrations. Diwali is a national holiday in India, and employees receive gifts, there are office parties, and sometimes there is a cash bonus paid on the holiday.
Another beautiful holiday tradition is rangoli, an art form in India in which Hindu symbols and traditional patterns are created during certain festivals, including Diwali. The artwork is created on the floor using materials like colored rice or sand, flour, or flower petals. Designs are passed from one generation to the next, and colors are stunning. The purpose of a rangoli is to beatify the entrance to a home, keep bad spirits at bay, and attract wealth and prosperity to the house.
The puja (prayer) is the religious ceremony on Diwali itself – for my friend in New Delhi, this year it started at about 7:00P and lasted for two hours. While people may visit a mandir (the place of worship for the Hindu religion) during the five day celebration, the most important religious act for most observers is the puja, and it is usually done either at home or at a place of business. For the wealthy, a pandit (a Hindu scholar or priest) is booked months in advance to perform the veneration, while others perform their own. It is traditional to place several orange floral wreathes, made of marigolds, in the puja area. There is prayer and the singing of songs to invoke blessings, called aartis. Afterward, there is usually a festive meal and the exchanging of gifts.
Diwali is not one event, but rather a series of festivals over the course of five days. For example, the last day of the celebration in many traditions is the Bhai Dooj, a ritual commemorating brother-sister relationships. Held on the night of a new moon, in the ceremony the sister places a vermillion mark on her brother’s forehead to protect him (can I just say that as a mom, I love this idea?).
It is customary to play cards during Diwali parties, even though games of chance are officially illegal in India (many people play with tokens, not actual cash). The origin of this tradition seems to be the belief that the goddess Parvati (the Hindu goddess of love and devotion) won a game of dice against her husband Lord Shiva, and that ever after, during the festival each year – because of her joy in her own good fortune – she visits and bestows wealth for the coming year on anyone found gambling.
All of this holiday cheer demands, of course, the right wardrobe. The women wear beautiful saris, and the men often wear traditional kurta pajamas. Auspicious colors include red, pink, yellow and gold. Many luxury houses offer limited edition accessories for Diwali, usually in bold and bright colors (last year, Tod’s issued an exclusive set of satin and sequined evening bags to mark the holiday). Our correspondent reports that all of her friends have a preferred jeweler who creates custom pieces for them, generally employing gold and diamonds (she says “Diwali parties, wherever they’re held, involve a lot of bling”). This desire for unique pieces makes Western fine jewelry and watch companies, like Cartier and Van Cleefs, less relevant in India. Among the preferred jewelers mentioned by our wealthy female friends are Tribhovandas Bhimji Zaveri (TBZ), Kanjimull, and Roopchand.
While the focus is on home and family, some wealthy people do travel for Diwali. Popular spots for these holiday trips are Jordan (to see the Red Sea and the Dead Sea); Dubai; Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Sri Lanka, and Singapore.
People of Indian descent and people of the Hindu faith around the world celebrate Diwali. London is said to be the largest celebration outside of India – Leicester and Trafalgar Square are centers for the festivities, and since 2009 there has been an official Diwali celebration at 10 Downing Street. In New York, where pretty much anything can be found, you can find Diwali celebrations, too. President Obama became the first U.S. President to personally attend a Diwali celebration. And at the beginning of October, the U.S. Postal Service issued the first Diwali stamp, with a picture of a lighted diya surrounded by rose petals.
As a tourist, there are many special places in which to experience the lights and joyous atmosphere of Diwali firsthand. In India, my friends recommend Varanasi, where you can observe the aarti with 1,000 lamps and the chanting of hymns, and watch the diyas floating down the Ganges and lining its riverbanks. In Udaipur, you can watch celebratory fireworks over the lakes. Or if you want to get closer to nature, you can venture to Pushkar, which hosts Asia’s largest camel fair during Diwali. Outside of India, all of the other countries that celebrate the holiday will have their own unique customs; all will employ light, and all are likely to be incredibly lovely and illuminating.
If we’ve sparked your wanderlust, you should mark your calendar now: in 2017, Diwali is on Thursday, October 19th. We’re thinking of going to India next year to experience the celebrations in person. My friend in New Delhi says she has plenty of space for us. Are you in?