Saturday, October 29, 2016

Diwali: The Festival of Lights

Diwali, also called Deepavali or Deepawali is one of the most popular Indian festivals and is celebrated 20 days after Dussehra during new moon in between the Hindu month of ashwin and Kartik, which falls during October or November.

Diwali is called the festival of lights, as people light candles or traditional clay lamps called diya. They are filled with oil or ghee, clarified butter, and burned through a wick, usually made of cotton. In many areas of India the celebrations include fireworks. Celebrations for Diwali go on for 3 to 8 days.

In ancient times their date was determined based on the heliacal rising of certain stars easily visible to the naked eye. Traditionally it lasted three days starting from the day before the sunset (as in the Celtic culture day began at sunset). It should be emphasized that these astronomical coincidences that were correct in the iron age, are no longer relevant due to the combined effect of the phenomena of nutation and precession of earth.

Every culture and religion has a tradition surrounding the arrival of winter and the impending darkness with traditions that persist. Similar prehistoric festivals linked to Diwali is the Yule also pronounced 'iuel'. At present day although the festival is celebrated around the winter solstice, the celebration on a day so near to the astronomical solstice has actually been an attempt to replace the ancient pagan festivals celebrating the light.

Diwali means the time for new inflowing vitality and joy of living, distance from the old and dusty. The winter retreat gives way to going out. It is a time of purification, cleansing, healing and moderation. The windows are opened and everything is cleaned. The house is cleaned of dust, spider webs and dirt are swept out. Ritual dishes on this occasion are traditionally all dried, canned or otherwise naturally preserved foods, as they were earlier in the period.

The etymology of the word is unclear. Linguists, however, suggest that it has been inherited by the Germanic languages from a pre-Indo-European linguistic substrate. Although there are numerous references to the festival in sagas, there are only few and incomplete reports about the nature of the celebrations. Going back in time we go back to the Lupercalia that was celebrated before the advent of the new year.

In this celebration, two boys of noble family were led to a cave, in which the priests, having sacrificed goats, marked the foreheads with the stained knife of animal blood. The blood was then dried with wet white wool in milk, and soon the two young men had to smile. At that point the two boys had to wear the skins of sacrificed animals and with the same skin were then made the strips to be used as whips.

Well coiffed and with the strips in hand, the two young men had to run around the town beating anyone they could see, and to women, if they voluntarily offered to be lashed to purify and obtain fecundity. Another special moment of the festival was the purification of the city, in which women roamed the streets with candles and torches, a symbol of light.

For Celtic traditions this anniversary is called Imbolc and is particularly linked to the god of fire, of tradition and healing.

In earlier times in France at Aubusson, people float over the water a small boat or a board filled with lighted candles. After dusk, the evenings were considered complete and the congregation celebrated this event by copious libations. In Moselle and around in Metz, children floated nut shells topped with wicks lit filled with oil. In the Ardennes, a shod hoof of a candle is designated.

In Islikon village of the Swiss municipality of Gachnang (Thurgau) continues the tradition of Sunday Laetare, the light wooden construction paper and a small tower sitting on a colored plank raft containing transparencies with symbolic stars, lighted candles and an inscription Fort mit licht. The whole is placed on the water and the current causes the rafts while the audience sings in heart.

Diwali, has its Thai version known as Loi Krathong. In Chiang Mai, the Loi Krathong is called Yi Peng. Previously, in Westphalia and Holland, the first of several lantern festivals were celebrated with a view to the coming, dark season.

In various parts of the Indian subcontinent, the festival is widely celebrated, with diverse customs and different mythological references that developed later with passage of time. Depending on the region, it is celebrated between one to five days. In Bengal, on Diwali, Kali is worshipped.

An essential element of Diwali is the lights with small oil lamps placed on windows or entrances in rows. Now increasingly electric lights are used to illuminate the houses, shops and streets throughout the country. Sometimes people hang lights in trees and place candles on the roofs and burst firecrackers and fireworks everywhere. Diwali is also a main shopping season.

The first day is celebrated as Dhanteras, also called as Dhanvantari Trayodashi or Dhantrayodashi, when Yama is invoked. On this day people clean up the houses and paint and decorate with various motifs and oil lamps or candles are lit at sunset. People also buy new clothes and cooking utensils, including valuables and jewelry mainly of gold or silver.

The second day of the festival is celebrated as Narak Chaturdashi also called Kali Chaudas or Choti Diwali, to mark the defeat of Asura King Naraka by Krishna, and the release of thousands of maidens Narakasura had imprisoned. People get up before sunrise and take bath, preferably with perfumed oil. Later they light oil lamps and decorates the house with particular kolams. They wear new clothes and visit neighbours with sweets and gifts are exchanged. Today, gifts cover a wide range of products from chocolate candy or flowers, kitchenware, jewelry, multimedia device, etc. In the evening men light fireworks and explode firecrackers.

The third day also called as Badi Diwali is celebrated as Lakshmi Puja in Northern India and is considered the most important day of the festivities. Lakshmi and Ganesh statues are cleaned with water and applied an ointment called panchamrita. Rangoli is drawn on the ground with rice flour and designs called Manora are made, which are drawings on the walls. This decoration is complemented with leaves of mango tree, which are arranged on a thread and hanged on the doors.

On this day people clean up the houses and lights are lit. Lamps are also lit and released on the rivers. For shopkeepers this day has special meaning and is also the last day of the Hindu Vikram Samvat calendar. They open new business books and close the old ones. Ganesha is also worshipped during this day. Many people participate in gambling through raffles. In some parts of India during Diwali evenings, families gather and have a habit of playing teen patti.

The fourth day is celebrated as Govardhan Puja, also called Annakut or Bali Pratipada. Krishna and Vishnu is worshiped and is considered the first day of the new year. In Maharashtra, Gudi Padwa is celebrated, which symbolizes love and devotion between spouses. Wives swivel a thali with lights on the forehead of their husbands and then seek blessings for them. In South India, Diwali does not coincide with the start of the Nav Varsh, because another calendar is used, the Shalivahana calendar.

The fifth and final day of Diwali is celebrated as Bhau Beej, also Bhaiduj or Bhautika, when sisters apply tilak on the forehead of their brothers and seek blessings for them. The brother and sister promises to protect each other.

One of the legend is about Assyrian King Yama or Hima, who in the Rig Veda is mentioned as the son of Vivasvat and Saranya, the daughter of Tvastar, with a twin sister named Yami, was facing a possible defeat in the hands of his enemy through treachery. Determined to prevent this tragedy, the wife of Yama lit lamps, arranged everything around the room, and spent the night telling stories and singing songs to her husband to keep him from dozing.

In the middle of the night, the enemy came, but dazzled by the brightness of the lamps it could not accomplish its sinister design. Thus, King Yama escaped the jaws of death by the intelligence and determination of his wife. This legend explains the inspiration and tradition that diyas are lit on the nights of Diwali. Later the victory was celebrated with firecrackers.

On the fifth day of Diwali, Bhai Dooj is also celebrated as Yama, visited his sister Yami. The latter received him warmly, prayed for his longevity, placed a tilak on the forehead and garland around his neck. Yami also prepared for her brother all kinds of dishes and sweets. Having enjoyed the delicious food, Yama also prayed for her sister and gave her the gift, she desired for long.

Another legend goes that Yama created a underground city for thousands of people by digging layers of tunnel in the mountain ranges to protect themselves from the fiery winter snow. Artificial lights were created to lit up the city every night. Later, he succumbed to untimely death to protect his people and kingdom.

In a particular Slavic cosmogony, Svarog fought Zmaj, a bloody giant snake or a dragon with several heads, symbol of disorder. Since then Zmaj reigned in the realm of the dead, while Svarog settled in that heavenly. According to other myths Zmaj was a benign creature, protector of waters and sowing.

In different places Diwali mela is held, usually during weekend, with magic shows, puppet or craft shows. One can attend stalls where girls draws tattoos of mehndi on their hands, along with food stalls. Of course, the fireworks are in the game. Because of their popularity, the Divali mela often host film celebrities from Bollywood or famous singers.

Diwali is also celebrated in Sri Lanka, Nepal, under the name of Tihar, Mauritius, Suriname, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, Malaysia, Singapore and South Africa among the Indian diaspora. The festivities due to its spiritual and social significance and its cheerful character is compared with Christmas.

For Jains, it is reminiscent of the entry of Mahavira into Nirvana and Moksha and is the celebration of life and an opportunity to strengthen ties with family and friends and it also represents the beginning of the Jain new year. In Northern India, Diwali is also the New Year's Day.

Diwali is also celebrated by Sikhs for three days in Amritsar with particular fervor in the Golden Temple as Bandi Chhor Diwas, literally the day of liberation. People offer tribute to the ten spiritual gurus of Sikhism. Historically, the commemoration recalls some essential moments of the fight against the Mughal empire.

And the lights that shine on every window, every alley and corner of the country, symbolize a hope that of a people that year after year wants to reiterate the importance of family ties.