10 things you should know about Diwali
If you've got any questions, this should clear things right up!
1. What does it mean and what's with all the lamps?
Diwali is a Hindi contraction of the Sanskrit Deepavali, which literally translates to 'row of lamps'. In southern parts of India, like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, it's still called Deepavali and celebrated with as much fervour as it in northern and central parts of the country. It is regarded as the most famous festival in India and marks the Hindu New Year.
Clay lamps, or diyas, are traditionally filled with mustard oil and lit at the entrances of homes on the night before the new moon, and this is to lead good fortune and prosperity into people's homes and lives.
2. What's the story behind it all?
Since the story in the Hindu Sanskrit epic Ramayana is just too long, we're going to give you the shortened, abridged version: An evil king, Ravana, kidnaps king Rama's wife Sita and holds her captive in Sri Lanka. Rama defeats Ravana and rescues his wife, and returns triumphant to his capital, Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. The lamps were used to welcome them home, which is why families light them during Diwali. It symbolises the triumph of good over evil.
3. Is it just one day?
Diwali is actually a festival that's celebrated over the course of five days. On the first day, families clean the house - sort of like a major spring cleaning, except in autumn. The second day is for lighting diyas and putting up decorations like rangoli. The third day is the most important day, when families perform pujas in their homes, and celebrate with mouth-watering treats and light fireworks. It's a time for families to get together and be grateful for the year that has gone by and to look forward to the next. The fourth day is the beginning of the New Year, when friends and family get together and exchange presents and, of course, eat some more delicious sweets. The last day is for siblings, when brothers visit their sisters and celebrate their bond.
4. What's with all the gold?
The first day of Diwali is considered an auspicious time to buy gold, what with all the impending prosperity. It is usually when the fiscal period also starts for many Hindus. It certainly explains why there's a massive surge in the demand for gold during Diwali. Plus, it's shiny!
5. What is Rangoli, and what if I step on it?
Rangoli is a decorative pattern drawn at the entrances or courtyards of homes for Diwali and other Indian festivals like Onam, Pongal, etc. Rangoli is usually drawn with powdered rice or flour to which natural colours are added to get vibrant, elaborate patterns, mostly of flowers and simple geometric shapes. Stepping on one is not a bad omen, but a lot of work goes into it, so try to avoid messing up the elaborate designs and apologise to your hosts. They may, or may not, ration your sweets.
6. Who else celebrates Diwali?
Diwali is not just a national holiday in India. In fact, it is a holiday in Trinidad & Tobago, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Guyana, Surinam, Singapore, Malaysia and Fiji. The Jains also celebrate a festival of lights at the same time, while the Sikhs celebrate Bandi Chhor Divas. In fact, different countries have their own versions of the 'festival of lights'.
7. How do you greet someone who's celebrating Diwali?
'Shubh Diwali' or 'Shubh Deepavali' is the greeting exchanged during the festive time. It means 'Have an auspicious Diwali'. Happy Diwali is also acceptable, but use this opportunity to show off your cultural awareness!
8. What kind of sweets are made and eaten during Diwali?
Since it's a celebratory festival, the sweets tend to be nothing short of indulgent. There's a lot of khoya or mawa - which is basically concentrated sweet milk - sugar and ingredients like saffron, cardamom and silver leaf. If you are being hosted this Diwali, make sure you take a box of sweets to gift your hosts. Classic barfis, pedas and/or gujjiyas are a winner every time!
Read: Kitchen Classics: Savouring Diwali
9. Why the fireworks?
Well, it is the festival of lights! Since Diwali is a time of new beginnings, lighting fireworks is an act of celebration similar to why we light up the night sky on New Year's Eve. Also, the noise scares away all the evil and darkness from the homes. Just be sure to be careful while handling your fireworks.
10. Does this mean I get to go shopping?
Yes, it does! Diwali is basically a big New Year's celebration, so everyone will expect new clothes, shoes, gadgets, what have you... Many households even buy new utensils (and get rid of the old ones during the first day) and a new broom to clean up the house!