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Diwali : All You Need to Know About the Hindu Festival of Lights

What’s it all about?

Diwali, also called Deepavali in some Indian languages, translates literally as “row of lamps” and is a celebration of the victory of good over evil, light over dark and knowledge over ignorance.

In Hindu tradition, the festival has associations with many religious texts. Different regions of India associate Diwali with different tales from Hindu scripture, such as the return of Rama after 14 years in exile, the birth of Lakshmi (the goddess of prosperity), or legends surrounding the god Krishna.

How long does Diwali last?

Diwali is a Hindu festival that lasts for five days, culminating in the Hindu New Year. Diwali starts on the fifteenth day of the month of Kartika according to the Hindu calendar. This is usually the month of October or November according to the Gregorian calendar.

How Diwali is celebrated

Diwali is a public holiday in India, and in some other countries with large Hindu populations, including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Fiji. The first two days of the holiday, called Dhanteras and Naraka Chaturdasi, are given over to intensive preparations for the climactic third night. Homes are carefully scrubbed, renovated and decorated for the festival, while the women of the family may paint their hands with henna patterns and make traditional sweets. Many Hindus draw colourful rangoli – traditional decorative patterns made with rice flour, often in the shape of lotus flowers – outside their homes.

On the main night of Diwali, called Lakshmi Puja, families dress up in their best clothes and light small painted earthenware lanterns half-filled with oil outside their houses. These are left overnight so that Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, can find her way safely into their homes. It is said that the more lamps a family lights, the more easily Lakshmi will be able to find her way to their home. It is also a time for eating sweets and exchanging gifts with friends and family – even on the tense India-Pakistan border, soldiers from the opposing countries share sweets to mark the event.

Modern celebrations incorporate bright electric lights and fireworks, and lots of them – India’s Diwali illuminations can be seen from space. The fourth and fifth days of the holiday celebrate the special bond between husband and wife and between brother and sister, respectively.

A good time to invest

Diwali is regarded as an auspicious time to make money, and nothing symbolises this better than Muhurat trading, a special one-hour trading session that coincides with it and marks the end of the old financial year and a positive beginning to the new one. Stock-brokers decorate their offices with Diwali decorations in anticipation of the session, which many celebrants use as an opportunity to buy small amounts of stock for their children. Although most transactions during the yearly ritual consist of token amounts, many people consider these investments to be lucky. Newspapers often publish stock tips to coincide with the festival.

What is eaten at Diwali?

Diwali is as much a festival of food as of light. Each Indian region has its own customs, but most involve specific dishes for each phase of the celebrations. About a month before the festival, Hindu women of the older generation will gather in each other’s kitchens to start planning and preparing the important snacks and sweets.

Traditionally, little Indian sweetmeats known as mithai are eaten both with meals and between them throughout the five days. They are a cross between a snack, a dessert and a sweet – and they are the “one thing that captures the Indian culinary psyche”.

What is ‘Black Diwali’?

Many British Sikhs, who also mark Diwali, are choosing to observe a “black Diwali” in protest against the Indian government’s treatment of their religion. For Sikhs, the festival commemorates the release of their sixth guru, Hargobind Sahab, from prison. Temples and schools across the UK are eschewing the candles and fireworks to show their anger about the desecrations of their holy scriptures in the Indian state of Punjab.

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