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What is India’s Diwali festival?

| Words by Rachel McCombie |

We find out about the meaning and traditions of Diwali, the brightest festival in the Indian calendar.

What is Diwali?

Diwali is India’s ‘Festival of Light’, a time when people come together to celebrate good conquering evil, light conquering dark. This celebration of new beginnings coincides with the Hindu New Year and the start of the new business year, so there are prayers to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Ganesh, the god of wisdom and luck, for a successful year. It’s the biggest event in the Hindu calendar, and Sikhs and Jains celebrate similar festivals at the same time as Hindus celebrate Diwali.

A colourful country becomes even more so during Diwali

The legends behind Diwali

Different parts of India celebrate or place more emphasis on different legends at Diwali. In northern India, the festival particularly celebrates the return and coronation of Rama and his wife Sita from their fourteen-year exile following the 15th century BC defeat of the ten-headed demon, Ravana. Elsewhere, many link Diwali with Parvathi, the goddess of love and devotion, while for many others, the festival primarily honours the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi; in Bengal, it’s the goddess Kali. Meanwhile, Indians in the north central region, along with the Nepalese, remember Krishna’s victory over the demon king Narakasura.

A key festival of the Hindu calendar, Diwali is celebrated across India

When is Diwali celebrated?

The exact dates of Diwali change each year and are based on the Hindu lunar calendar, but it falls in the autumn, between mid-October and mid-November. The festivities take place over five days, with the festival itself falling on the third day.

What do Diwali celebrations involve?

The word “Diwali” literally means “rows of lighted lamps”, which gives you a good idea of what the festival looks like. As you might expect, Diwali celebrations are all about bright lights: firework displays are put on, and people decorate their homes with colourful lights and earthenware candles called ‘diyas’. Shops and other public spaces are similarly adorned. These lamps are said to help the goddess Lakshmi - goddess of wealth - find her way to homes and businesses, and windows are often left open to allow the goddess in, bringing wealth with her. Adding to the colour are rangoli artworks on the floors of living rooms and courtyards; these are bright patterns (the most popular being a lotus flower) created from coloured sand, petals, flour or dry rice.

Feasting is an important aspect of Diwali

Eating is a central part of the festivities, and feasts are prepared in much the same way as Christians do for Christmas - except that there’s no set dish, as families have their own traditional Diwali favourites. Indian sweets are particularly popular during Diwali; it’s also a time when friends and families exchange gifts and sweets, as well as giving to the needy. People wear new clothes during Diwali, and give their homes a thorough clean.

Diwali is a wonderfully lively time to visit India, so find out more about our small-group tours to India and start planning your trip.