Three million people in the U.S. along with their friends and compatriots worldwide will be celebrating Diwali on Thursday, Oct. 23. Diwali is one of the biggest holidays in India and for expats. Like Christmas, It involves colorful lights decorating a house, gift exchanges, dressing up in new clothes and a many family traditions.
Diwali (also known as Deepavali) is the “festival of the lights” and celebrates the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. While there are regional and religious differences in rituals, the use of lights in Diwali festivities is symbolic and ubiquitous. The lights stem from the belief that the more lights used, the more easily Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, can find her way safely into homes.
In homes, people light small oil lamps (or nowadays, small battery-operated tea lights) called diyas all around their home. The lamps symbolize inner light and fighting off dark influences. A modern twist is to decorate with rows of bright electric lights, much like Christmas lights. On Diwali, there are also large fireworks displays in many communities.
Actually the middle day of a 5-day holiday period observed by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and others of Indian descent, Diwali marks the triumph of good over evil. It dates back to ancient times as a festival held after the summer harvest. The date is based on the Hindu Lunisolar calendar and usually celebrated between mid-October and mid-November. In some areas, such as Gujarati, Diwali is also part of religious or cultural new year’s festivities.
Like Christmas cookie exchanges, sweets are often given as gifts or shared with colleagues. These include chakali, jalebi, kulfi, coconut laddu and burfi. There is also a tradition of giving food and goods to those in need.
Diwali traditionally involves significant preparations. Besides decorating, people clean their homes and yards thoroughly. The shopping preparations involve buying gifts, special food and new outfits for the entire family, but can also be the time to purchase big-ticket items like jewelry, appliances and even cars.
One of the most elaborate preparations involves creating exquisite Rangoli patterns on walls, floors, near doors and walkways. Rangoli is the art of drawing motifs on the in one’s home using different colored powders. The patterns are made with finger using rice powder or colored chalk topped with grains, beads or flowers. The entire pattern must be an unbroken line, with no gaps to be left anywhere, for evil spirits are believed to enter through such gaps, if they find one. The elaborate artworks vary from the size of a doormat to covering the entire floor in a room. While intricate and stunning, most Rangoli designs are only on display for a day or two.
While people of Indian descent in the U.S. and other countries do not typically take time off of work for Diwali, those who deal with offshore companies should be aware that Government offices, banks and many businesses in India are closed on Diwali.
According to the Pew Research Center, Indian-Americans are the third-largest Asian-American group in the country and the numbers keep growing exponentially. Large Indian populations now reside in many states and many communities will be helping the 3 million Indians the U.S. in celebrating Diwali this week.
By Dyanne Weiss