Follow the light

Diwali, the ‘festival of lights’, is celebrated with equal vigour and pomp within India and around the world, writes Amrita Das, as she suggests a few Diwali destinations

The decked-up ghats of Varanasi for Dev Deepavali

Diwali has traditionally been a five-day festival to mark Lord Ram’s return to Ayodhya, after a lengthy 14-year exile. It symbolically celebrates the victory of the good over evil. This festival is celebrated in most Indian homes with ritualistic prayers or pujas, earthen oil lamps or diyas, colourful designs and motifs or rangoli and scrumptious food. In some communities, playing cards, grand dance performances and plays, and night-long fairs form an integral part of the festivities. Diwali outside India is as vibrant and flamboyant.

Within India

Ayodhya, the home of Diwali, is perhaps the best place to celebrate the festival. Ghats along River Saryu are lit up with diyas. Ayodhya Deepostav 2018 secured a place in the Guinness Book of World Records by lighting up a swooping three-lakh diyas on the riverfront of Saryu. This year’s Deepostav was scheduled between October 25 and 27 and was really grand with Ramlila performances and aarti by the chief minister, Yogi Adityanath. Visitors from all over the country flock here to witness this grand display of lights in the believed birthplace of Lord Ram.

Varanasi, also in Uttar Pradesh, has grand fireworks over River Ganga. Elaborate Ganga aarti takes place on the ghats, while being illuminated with diyas. Diwali festivities in Varanasi culminate with the spectacular Dev Deepavali (Diwali of the Gods) celebrations which usually happens two weeks after Diwali. Coinciding with Ganga Mahotsav, it is an ideal time to observe the cultural heritage of the city, while witnessing processions and prayers with the river city being lit in every corner.

The foundation stone of Amritsar’s Golden Temple was laid during Diwali. Adding to the significance of the festival, the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind, returned from Mughal captivity on Diwali. These reasons make the festival even more auspicious for the entire community. Golden Temple glows with illuminated floating candles on the sarovar (lake) on these days. Amritsari dhabas (eating joints) offer special culinary spreads, adding to the vibe.

For a different Diwali, escape to the rural setting of Bihar. Madhubani, believed to be the maiden home of Sita, wife of Lord Ram, dresses up in lights. Most mud houses adorn fresh murals depicting the wedding of Lord Ram and Sita ­— the origins of Madhubani or Mithila painting. Since last year, the town celebrates and promotes pollution-free Diwali.

Book a Diwali holiday with Rural Pleasure, a Vadodara-based company facilitating rural tourism, and drive off to a forest. Dangs, about 270 km from Vadodara in Gujarat, is the destination of this quiet Diwali experience. Itinerary here includes staying with a tribal family, getting an insight into their daily life, making rangoli and lighting diyas, and being the recipient of their home-cooked vegetarian meals.

Outside India

Take a short trip outside India to experience Diwali in equal grandeur and tradition. Neighbours like Malaysia celebrate Hari Diwali which begins with an auspicious oil bath in the morning. The banks of River Klang is lit up with numerous candles as a dedication to Lord Ram and Goddess Lakshmi. Firecrackers are banned in the country. Residents prepare much in advance with street shopping and food kiosks buzzing with activity weeks before the festival.

Singapore has been one of the best choices for Diwali in Asia. Kilometres of Little India is decorated with elaborate arches, enormous elephant figures and neon signboards with Indian patterns, and extravagant procession chariots take precedence on the main day. Adding to the flamboyant festivities, Little India also has plays and dance performances narrating the history of the festival, exciting games, and stretches of food stalls. Thimithi, or the ritual of walking on fire, is occasionally demonstrated on Serangoon Road.

Streets of Singapore decked up for Diwali
Streets of Singapore decked up for Diwali

Sri Lanka’s Kandy does a sober and graceful version of Diwali. Most Tamil families have pujas at home and exchange customary gifts (usually clothes) before the main day. Diyas, rangolis and pollution- and noise-free firecrackers dominate the merriment. Misri, minuscule sugar candies, are distributed as prasad to devotees here.

Further away on the Indian Ocean, Mauritius has a large population of Indian origin, who usher in this festival in very traditional ways. The five-day festivities include ritualistic prayers and offerings to Goddess Lakshmi at home. The island is dressed up in floating candles, designer clay lamps and fairy lights in most corners.

The French Department island, La Réunion, also celebrates Diwali though not as elaborately as its neighbour Mauritius. Diwali is one of the biggest Hindu festivals here and Tamil-Hindu temples offer prayers days leading to the festival. Pollution- and noise-free firework is allowed on the island. Pockets of this tropical paradise are illuminated with lights, celebrating the festival true to its name.

In Australia, Melbourne probably outdoes any other city when it comes to Diwali extravaganza or enthusiasm. Everyone rejoices by dressing up in Indian festive clothes. Most places have Bollywood dance competitions and performances. Henna painting, food kiosks and grand fireworks on River Yarra are also a part of this captivating show.

The archipelago of Fiji Islands celebrates Diwali in a rich way. They see this as a cultural exchange opportunity where they wear traditional Indian attires, devour typical Diwali sweets and dance to folk and Bollywood songs. Certain communities or workgroups also organise quizzes and rangoli competitions. Diwali is a national holiday in Fiji and just another way of experiencing the warm, multicultural Fijian society. The extravagance of USA’s Diwali festivities seldom matches with any other country. In New York City’s Times Square, there are performances by Bollywood stars. The flamboyance reaches a zenith in San Antonio in Texas. Last year, the Festival of Lights marked its 10th anniversary. This year, the two-day celebrations (November 2 and 3) include the ritualistic lighting of candles on River Walk, fireworks above the city, scrumptious barfi (milk-based fudge) and other Indian sweets in the numerous food kiosks, many art and jewellery stalls, and performances bedazzling Diwali evenings. These celebrations give an insight into the Indian culture.

Very few people know that Trinidad and Tobago outperform with their Diwali celebrations. Divali Nagar is an annual night fair in Chaguanas in Trinidad. On this night, stories of the Ramayana are enacted with characters dressed in majestic costumes. Mandatory fireworks, diyas and rangoli (both in colour and in white, made of rice flour) dominate the twin Carribean islands. Streets are filled with food stalls and celebratory dance performances.

Owing to the large Indian diaspora in the UK, many pockets celebrate Diwali with much vigour. Birmingham celebrates a quiet Diwali by lighting up its streets, sans fireworks. In Leicester, the Golden Mile stretch of Belgrave Road comes to life with dancing parties and Indian food. Indian communities also layout art and craft stalls, singing and dancing competitions, fashion shows, Bollywood dances, and more activities.

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