Diwali, also called Deepavali, the festival of lights, is a holiday of jubilation and togetherness celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs throughout India as well as in Indian communities around the world.
The festival is embraced by people regardless of religious background; it connects the followers of various religions in grand celebrations of victory of good over evil. With warmer days turning into a mild winter in India, the fun-filled Diwali is celebrated by each community in its own special way, and each religion adds its own color and customs to this grand festival of lights.
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Houses are decorated with myriad tiny lamps and candles placed around the home, in courtyards, and gardens, as well as on rooftops. These displays symbolize removing ignorance and gaining knowledge. The night sky lights up with fireworks streaking like lightning, splintering into rainbows before vanishing in a dazzle of flashing smoke. A wide assortment of sweets and savory snacks are prepared at home or bought from sweet shops and shared with everyone. Because Diwali signifies renewal of life, it is common to wear new clothes on the day of the festival.
Sweet and extravagant
More than sumptuous feasts, sweets prepared with various nuts and flours, milk, dried fruits and fragrant spices such as saffron and cardamom are the centerpiece of Diwali celebrations. These sweets are often decorated with vark, a very thin layer of edible silver.
In times past, preparations began weeks ahead with the cleaning, roasting and powdering various lentils and rice in the granite grindstone, making paneer (cheese) and ghee at home, and buying fresh oil straight from the oil press. The irresistible aromas of barfi, gulab Jamun, peda, jilebi, laddu, mysorepak and a host of other sweets and savories lingered in the air.
Today sweets are often bought from commercial manufacturers. It is the busiest season for the sweet shops in India. Sweets, snacks, fruits and nuts packaged in beautiful containers are exchanged with friends and neighbors.
The date of Diwali fluctuates as it is based on the Hindu calendar with solar years and lunar months. It falls either in October or November, just the day before the new moon. In 2013, it is on Nov. 3.
India is a land of mythological tales of Hindu gods and goddesses, and Diwali means many different things to people from different regions. In north India, Diwali celebrates Lord Rama’s homecoming after killing the demon king Ravana. One of the unique customs of Diwali consists of indulgence in gambling. Nowadays, cards have replaced dice.
In south India, Diwali celebrates Lord Krishna’s triumph over demon king Narakasura. Festivities start very early in the morning with entire households waking up before dawn for an auspicious oil bath. Children light up firecrackers, and everyone feasts on sweet delicacies.
In Gujarat and neighboring states, the festivities continue for a week. On Dhan Teras, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, is worshiped in the evening with lighting of lamps. This day is believed to be auspicious to purchase metals. Celebrants often buy gold or silver or at least one or two new metal utensils.
For the business communities of Gujarat, Diwali also marks the beginning of the new financial year, which starts the day after Diwali. In Bengal, Orissa and Assam at Diwali, Kali Puja is celebrated by lighting firecrackers in honor of the goddess Kali. The occasion is also marked by creating intricate patterns with colored flour called rangoli. After the rangoli is drawn, lamps are set on top of the designs and lit.
The significance of Diwali extends beyond Hinduism. The Jains celebrate this day in honor of the attainment of nirvana, or eternal bliss, by Lord Mahavir, who was the last tirthankara, or religious teacher, of the Jains.
The foundation of the Golden Temple of Sikhs at Amritsar is believed to have been laid on Diwali day in 1577. Buddhists celebrate quietly by chanting and remembering Emperor Asoka who converted to Buddhism on this day.
With more and more Indians migrating to various parts of the world, the number of countries where Diwali is celebrated keeps increasing. Because it is not a public holiday outside India, Diwali celebrations often take place on a weekend close to the actual festival. In major cities across the United States, the festival takes the form of a great fair with vendors selling Indian goods as well as food, cultural performances and fireworks. The White House has hosted Diwali celebrations since 2003.
Regardless of the varying styles and forms of celebrations observed by different regions, there is an underlying similarity in the celebration of this festival. Diwali festivities all celebrate the victory of good over evil and symbolize a reaffirmation of hope and a renewed commitment to friendship and goodwill. Diwali’s traditional dishes reflect this uplifting theme and emphasize wonderful sweets, including an easy-to-make semolina pudding.
Rava Kesari (Semolina Pudding)
Here is an unbelievably easy dessert made with farina or cream of wheat, which are readily available in U.S. supermarkets.
½ cup ghee
10 cashew nuts, coarsely chopped
2½ cups milk
A few strands of saffron
1 cup farina or cream of wheat
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon powdered cardamom
1. Heat two tablespoons of the ghee in a skillet and fry the cashews until they are golden brown. Add the raisins and let them plump up. Remove it from the stove and set aside.
2. Add saffron to the milk and stir well.
3. In a large, heavy skillet, toast the farina in 2 teaspoons of the ghee until it is well toasted. Add the saffron-milk mixture and cook over medium heat, stirring continuously, for 8 to 10 minutes. When farina starts to thicken, stir in the sugar and the remaining ghee, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Stir continually to prevent lumps from forming.
4. When it is dry, in about 6 to 8 minutes, sprinkle cardamom and add the cashew nut and raisin mixture. Stir well to combine.
5. Scoops of warm rava kesari may be served in small bowls. Or spread it on a greased plate, after the mixture has cooled down, and cut it into squares or other desired shapes.
Top photo: Diwali sweets and lamps. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran