Diwali, the "festival of lights", is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated in autumn (northern hemisphere) every year. Arguably the most important festival in Hinduism, it is an official holiday in Fiji, Guyana, India, Malaysia, Mauritius, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago. The festival spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness or good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair. Its celebration includes millions of lights shining on housetops, outside doors and windows, around temples and other buildings in the communities and countries where it is observed. The festival preparations and rituals typically extend over a five-day period, but the main festival night of Diwali coincides with the darkest, new moon night of the Hindu Lunisolar month Kartika. In the Gregorian calendar, Diwali night falls between mid-October and mid-November.
Before Diwali night, people clean, renovate, and decorate their homes and offices. On Diwali night, Hindus dress up in new clothes or their best outfit, light up lamps and candles inside and outside their home, participate in family puja (prayers) typically to Lakshmi – the goddess of fertility and prosperity. After puja, fireworks follow, then a family feast including mithai (sweets), and an exchange of gifts between family members and close friends. Deepavali also marks a major shopping period in nations where it is celebrated..
Barack Obama became the first president to personally attend Diwali at the White House in 2009. On the eve of his first visit to India as the president of United States, Obama released an official statement sharing best wishes with "those celebrating Diwali."
Diwali is not a nationwide public holiday in the United States, but is celebrated in many towns and cities. For example, in New York City there are large bhangra parties in Times Square, and many of the buildings have special light shows in honor of Diwali.
Trinidad & Tobago, in the southern-most part of the Caribbean, is one of the most exciting, colorful islands of the West Indies. Trinidad and Tobago has a large ethnic Indian population. In fact 43% of the people are ethnically Indian. Therefore, Hindu festivals, customs, traditions and observances are an integral part of the society.
The belief behind the Diwali festival is same as of India, which is the prevalence of good over evil. However, Diwali has its own significance as it is an opportunity to unite the country and strengthen the bonds between the different ethnic groups, Indo-Trinidadians and Afro-Trinidadians, and the religious denominations, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. So on top of the usual rituals, emphasis is placed on several cultural and religious parts of the programme and has enormous positive impact in Trinidad as well as among the diaspora living abroad. The celebrations continue for over a week and the headquarters of the National Council of Indian Culture at Diwali Nagar is the focal point.
Indians are the second largest ethnic minority in Britain. For them, Diwali is the most important festival of the year, which, according to the Hindu solar calendar, falls in the cold, damp and windy months of October-November in Britain. Traditionally, ethnic Indians light their homes and surroundings with Diya, and keep their doors wide open in the chill weather to welcome the visit of Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. They visit the local temple to worship the shrine of Lakshmi, eat special sweets, burn incense sticks, and blow the conch shell after the prayer session in the Lakshmi temple.
In addition every year, London’s famous Trafalgar Square witnesses the celebration of Diwali. There one can taste all kinds of Indian food, enjoy music and dances by community groups and professional artists, you can try on saris, get an ayurvedic massage or makeover in the ‘beauty zone’ or browse for gifts at the Indian bazaar. All the entertainment here was free, like many of the events that take place in the city run by the Mayor of London's office.
Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, is full of picturesque landscapes and enchanting spots. Mauritius has a population that is 63% ethnic Indian, of which 80% are Hindu. Hence, almost all the Hindu festivals are celebrated in this country.
In Mauritius, Diwali holds special significance, as it is believed that Diwali has been celebrated even before the return of Lord Rama from 14 years of exile to be crowned as king. The festival is marked by lightening of earthen lamps in rows. Lakshmi is worshiped as the goddess of wealth and crackers are burnt to scare away evil spirits.
The first day of Diwali is called Dhanteras. On Dhanteras, homes and businesses are renovated and decorated. Entrances are made colorful with lanterns and traditional motifs to welcome the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity. To indicate her long-awaited arrival, small footprints are drawn with rice flour and vermilion powder all over the houses. Lamps are kept burning all through the night. It is also considered auspicious to purchase gold or silver items or at least one or two new utensils. It is believed that some form of precious metal is a sign of good luck. "Lakshmi Puja" is performed in the evenings when tiny Diyas of clay are lit to drive away the shadows of evil spirits. "Bhajans", devotional songs in praise of Goddess Lakshmi, are also sung.
The second day is Naraka Chaturdashi. Hindu literature narrates that the asura (demon) Narakasura was killed on this day by Krishna, Satyabhama and Kali. People decorate their homes with clay lamps and create design patterns called rangoli on the floor using colored powders or sand. Other traditions on this day recall Diwali's origins as a harvest festival. On this day delicacies are prepared from pounded semi-cooked rice (called Poha or Pova). This rice is taken from the fresh harvest available at that time. This custom is prevalent both in rural and urban areas especially in Western India.
The third day is the main day of the festival when families gather together for Lakshmi puja, a prayer to Goddess Lakshmi followed by mouth-watering feasts and firework festivities.
The fourth day is often considered the first day of the new year. Friends and relatives visit each other bearing gifts and best wishes for the season. It is also called Diwali Padva, the day of conjugal relationship, when it is a customary for the wife to put the red tilak on the forehead of her husband, garland him and do his "Aarathi" with a prayer for his long life. In appreciation of her tender care, the husband gives her a costly gift. This Gudi Padwa is symbolic of love and devotion between the wife and husband. In addition, newly-married daughters with their husbands are invited home for special meals and given presents. In olden days brothers went to fetch their sisters from their in-laws home for this important day.
Bhai Dooj, the last day of Diwali, is dedicated to fraternal bonds. Brothers visit their married sisters who welcome them with love and a lavish meal.
In Nepal, Deepavali is known as Tihar or Swanti. It is celebrated over the same five day period concurrent with Deepavali in India. The traditions vary from those in India. On the first day (Kaag tihar), crows are given offerings, as they are considered divine messengers. On the second day (Kukur tihar), dogs are given food for their honesty and loyalty. Gai Tihar and Goru Tihar are celebrated on the third day, when cows and oxen are garlanded and fed. The 3rd day is considered the last day of the year according to Nepal Sambat, so many of the businessmen clear their accounts on this day and on finishing it, worship goddess Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. Days before the Laxmi puja, houses are cleaned and decorated; on the day of Laxmi puja, oil lamps are lit near doors and windows. Cultural processions and other celebrations are observed in this day. The Newars celebrate it as Mha Puja, a special ritual in which the body is worshipped to keep it fit and healthy for the year ahead on this day. On the fifth and final day called Bhai Tika, brothers and sisters meet, garland each other, pray for the other's well being, mark the other's forehead with Tika. The brothers give gifts to their sisters, and sisters feed their brothers.
Traditionally, family reunions is an important part of Tihar. Other popular customs include "Deusi and Bhailo". Young girls will assemble into groups, after Laxmi Puja on Diwali. They will sing/dance and play Bhailo at every house in the community one by one. Meanwhile boys will play Deusi at each house. This singing and dancing is to bless each visited house. In return, the owner of the house will reward the dancers with rice, fruit and money. After the festival, people donate some part of the collected money and food to the charity or welfare groups and with the rest of the money and food, they go for a picnic. People also play swing called Dore Ping made out of thick ropes and Pirke Ping or Rangate Ping made out of wood.
Diwali has special significance in Jainism. Lord Mahavira, the last of the Tirthankar of this era, attained Nirvana (heaven) on this day at Pavapuri on 15 October 527 BCE, on Kartik Krishna Amavasya. According to the Kalpasutra by Acharya Bhadrabahu, 3rd century BC, many gods were present there, illuminating the darkness. Therefore, Jains celebrate Diwali as a day of remembering Mahavira.
On Diwali morning, Nirvan Ladoo is offered after praying to Lord Mahavira in all Jainsm temples all across the world. Jains tends to avoid firecrackers during Diwali as they cause harm to living organisms. Diwali is celebrated in atmosphere of austerity, simplicity, serenity, equity, calmness, charity, philanthropy and environment-consciousness. Jain temples, homes, offices, shops are decorated with lights and diyas. Relatives distributes sweets to each other. The lights are symbolic of knowledge or removal of ignorance. Swetambar jains observe two days of fasting in remembrance of the penance and sacrifice of Mahavira. In temples and homes, devotees sing and chant hymns and mantras from Jain religious texts in praise of the Tirthankar and congregate for a prayer and recite verses from the Uttaradhyayan Sutra which contain the last teachings of Mahavira. Jain pay visit to Pava-puri on this special day to offer their prayers. The Jain year starts with pratipada, next day after Diwali.
In Myanmar, a predominantly Theravada Buddhist community, there are two festival of lights called Thadingyut and Tazaungdaing. Thadingyut takes place on the full moon day of the 7th month of the Burmese calendar, while Tazaungdaing occurs on the 8th full moon. These mark the events in Buddha's life, such as his return from Tavatimsa heaven. Lights decorate homes and temples, and people worship at Burmese pagodas.
During Tazaungdaing, robe-weaving competitions are held to weave special yellow monk robes called matho thingan throughout the country, most notably in Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda. During these competitions, held for two consecutive nights (the night preceding and the night of the full moon), contestants work nonstop from night until dawn to weave these garments. The tradition commemorates a widely known story of the Buddha's life. Seeing that the Buddha would soon renunciate, the Buddha's mother, Maya, who had been reborn in the Tavatimsa heaven, spent the entire night weaving yellow monk robes for him. Her sister Gotami (Buddha's aunt) continued this tradition and offered new robes annually.
In Shan State, particularly in Taunggyi, hot air balloons lit with candles, are released to celebrate the full moon day. The balloons are released as an offering to the Sulamani cetiya in Tavitisma, a heaven in Buddhist cosmology and home of the devas, and as a way to drive away evil spirits, although the origins of the tradition date back to 1894, when the British first held hot air balloon competitions in Taunggyi, soon after the annexation of Upper Burma. In recent years, these traditions have also been transported to other parts of the country, including Naypyidaw, which holds an annual government-sponsored celebration, and Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo).
Finally, on Tazaungdaing young men play tricks on their neighbours as part of the custom called kyimano pwe (literally crow doesn't wake).
Malaysia has a diverse population with a majority of ethnic Malays, but large populations of ethnic Chinese and Indians. The Indian population mostly trace their ancestry to southern India. Therefore Diwali in Malaysia, locally called Hari Diwali, follows many of the same traditions as that of southern India. For example, people will take a traditional oil bath before the festivities, and then visit the temples or offer prayers at household altars. Small lamps made from clay and filled with coconut oil and wicks are a common sight to signify the victory of Lord Rama, the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana, over the demon king Ravana. Diwali is celebrated almost all over the Malaysia except in Sarawak & Federal Territory of Labuan.