Diwali, known as the Festival of Lights, is one of the most popular Indian festivals. Though celebrated in India and throughout the world to welcome in the New Year, it also symbolizes the vanquish of darkness that engulfs the light of knowledge.
What it means
The word Diwali derives from the Sanskrit word 'deepavali' meaning a cluster or row of lights and explains why Diwali is often referred to as the Festival of Lights – an appropriate title as illumination is central in a festival that ensures every household celebrating will be lit up with lights.
The first Diwali
The first Diwali in India was held to celebrate the return of Lord Rama, his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana to their kingdom in Ayodhya, the capital city of Koshala. When Rama, Sita and Lakshman were returning to Ayodhya the sun was setting and it was getting dark, so the people lit oil lamps to illuminate the way for them. Since then, Diwali has been celebrated on Amavasa -which is the 15th day of the dark fortnight of the Hindu calendar month of Katrika, falling at the end of October or the beginning of November every year.
Five days of celebration
The festival lasts for five days in many parts of India and can, in fact go on for a lot longer in some places. On the first day (Dhanteras), houses and shops are cleaned, whitewashed and decorated. The second day (known as Naraka Chatrudashi), marks the death of the tyrant king Narakusara who had imprisoned many men, women and daughters of various gods, saints and other holy men in his castle. Lord Krishna killed him, freeing his captives and this date is therefore seen as a day of rejoicing. The third, and most important day is Lakshmi-Puja and is devoted to revering the Goddess Lakshmi (the goddess of good luck, wealth and fortune). Hindus believe that on the night of Diwali, the Goddess Lakshmi will visit their home and bless every house that is lit with lights and candles.
The fourth day – called either Padwa or Varshapratipada - is looked upon as the most auspicious day to start any new venture.
The fifth and final day is commonly known as Bhaiya Dooj or the Teeka Ceremony. It is customary for men to visit their sisters' homes where the sister puts a sacred mark on her brother's forehead and prays for his long life and prosperity. The brothers give their sisters money and presents in return.
How it is celebrated
The day begins with Laxmi puja in which the Goddess Lakshmi is thanked for all that she has given in the year gone by. For people with their own businesses, doing a puja in the office is a must as it is considered lucky and auspicious.
After puja, friends and relatives visit to give presents - generally dry fruits and sweet meats. Many families do a puja in the evening as well. This is followed by a display of fireworks and a sumptuous vegetarian dinner. It is an evening where families gather together and celebrate. A number of people host big parties and play cards well into the night as it is one night where even the most conservative Asians condone gambling, as it is considered lucky!
In Hindu custom, light signifies goodness and during Diwali, lights are kept burning throughout the day and into the night to ward off darkness and evil. This is a five days festival; each of the five days in the festival of Diwali is marked with a significant 'puja' of a certain God/Goddess.
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