Diwali Q&A: the meaning of the Hindu festival of lights
Fireworks, oil lamps and sweetmeats all come together in Diwali – the only festival visible from space
DIWALI, the five-day Hindu festival of lights, celebrates new beginnings, the emergence of light from darkness and the triumph of good over evil. It is also observed by Sikhs and Jains, and in many British cities has evolved into a celebration that welcomes all cultures.
When is Diwali?
This year the festival will start on Sunday, 3 November. Its timing varies year by year, but it usually falls between mid-October and mid-November. The specific dates are determined by the Indian lunar calendar.
What’s it all about?
Diwali, which translates literally as “row of lamps”, is a celebration of the victory of good over evil, light over dark and knowledge over ignorance. It is principally a Hindu, Jain and Sikh festival. Traditions associated with Diwali can be traced back as far as 50-100 AD, to an autumnal festival for the dead – an origin similar to that of Halloween.
How is it celebrated?
Traditionally, families light small painted earthenware lanterns half-filled with oil, leaving them outsides houses overnight so that Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, can find her way safely into their homes.
Modern celebrations incorporate bright electric lights and fireworks, and lots of them – India’s Diwali illuminations can be seen from space.
It is also a time for spring cleaning the home, eating sweets and exchanging gifts. Many Hindus draw colourful rangoli – traditional decorative patterns made with rice flour, often in the shape of lotus flowers – outside their homes.
The largest Diwali celebrations outside India take place in Leicester, where about 35,000 people gather along Belgrave Road for the switching-on of the lights. Yet more arrive for the peak of the celebrations.
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 Diwali 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, according to Sejal Sukhadwala of the Guardian, they are the “one thing that captures the Indian culinary psyche”. ·