Let there be light: Diwali celebrates the end of the Hindu lunar calendar

An altar holds food given as gifts during a Diwali program at the BAPS Hindu temple. The holiday celebrates enlightenment and the victory of good over evil.

Women light lamps at the BAPS Hindu temple in Chesterfield County to observe Diwali, the biggest Hindu holiday of the year. Light plays a big part in Diwali festivities around the globe, from candles inside and outside homes to fireworks.

Small flames flickered and danced in brightly colored roundish vessels, their effervescence representing so much more than a simple light source against the bluish-purple hues of an evening sky.

Diwali — the festival of light and the biggest Hindu holiday of the year — is upon us, and if you’ve never heard of it, just follow the lights that illuminate both windowsills and the nighttime skies above. Akin to the holiday week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, it’s a four- to five-day period of spiritual and religious celebrations observed by family gatherings, prayers to a variety of regional Indian deities, sweets of all kinds, gifts and — throughout many parts of the world that observe it — fireworks.

“It’s a time to celebrate,” said Henrico County resident and Mumbai native Kamlesh Kundalia, who owns Laxmi Palace in western Henrico. A large display inside his store earlier this month featured, among other things, colorful Diwali candles, as well as the traditional clay vessels used during Diwali for burning wicks in a variety of oils.

But just what is Diwali?

Diwali, as it’s called in northern India, or Deepavali, in the south, translates to rows of light. Celebrated for thousands of years, it represents the last day of the Hindu lunar calendar, and while the specific days can change from year to year, it always falls within mid-October to mid-November. Depending on the geographic region of India, it can last for four or five days, including several days of festivities leading up to and then after Diwali day, which is the last day of the Hindu year.

Diwali is this week. Some will observe Diwali today, while others will observe it Thursday, Oct. 19.

The spiritual origins of Diwali are vast and varied, based on India’s diverse regional stories and religious traditions of its four major religions: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.

In the north, for example, observers celebrate Lord Rama’s return to his kingdom after a 14-year exile. In the south, the holiday celebrates the victory over the tyrant demon Narakasura. And the tales go on.

All of those stories, however, share the same threads: enlightenment and humanity’s triumph of good over evil.

“What remains true and the same is the essence of Diwali,” said Kedar Thoota, president of the Hindu Center of Virginia in Glen Allen, which will host a Diwali celebration with fireworks on Saturday, Oct. 21. That essence, he said, is “the celebration of victory of good (over) evil, of righteousness over treachery, of truth over falsehood and of light over darkness.”

He added, “It is a festival of the light which shows us the way on our journey through life.”

Light plays a big part in festivities around the world, from candles inside and outside homes to fireworks displays. Thoota said the latter is a show of respect for the heavens, with the hopes of attaining health, wealth, wisdom, peace and prosperity.

But there’s much more.

Each day of Diwali has significance and brings different customs. Observers spend time in prayer and take ritual baths. It’s a major shopping season, as traditions involve buying new clothing and giving gifts to family and friends. Families clean and redecorate their homes and offices.

Gatherings involve lots of food, particularly sweets and desserts made with jaggery, or cane sugar, as well as nuts of all kinds.

Kundalia of Henrico recalled buying firecrackers as a child with his grandfather, and how his grandmother would offer treats of dried fruit and nuts — which were a luxury to them — only during the week of Diwali. He said he would visit prayer events with his family, celebratory times that included gifts — usually the monetary kind — from the elders to the children for good luck.

“The festival of light ... it enlightens everybody’s life,” Kundalia said, and despite not being back to India during Diwali for some time, “those memories from 30 plus years (ago) are still in front of my eyes.”

Source : http://www.richmond.com/entertainment/let-there-be-light-diwali-celebrates-the-end-of-the/article_09c45e8c-3fcd-582d-b494-2f8d2f199ccc.html

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