Hindus all over the world will soon celebrate Diwali (or Deepavali), including in Trinidad where I grew up. It is also celebrated by Jains, Sikhs, and some Buddhists and is celebrated on the 15th day of the Black Fortnight in the Hindu month of Kartik. This Festival of Lights will be celebrated this year starting on the evening of Thursday 4th November and the celebration will last five days. It starts the day before the Hindu New Year. The festival marks the darkest night of the year when devotional prayers and ceremonies are offered to the Goddess Lakshmi, a giver of happiness, health, wealth, and prosperity.
The true spiritual meaning of this festival is deeper. We should not only remove the darkness from our homes, but we should also remove the darkness from our hearts and minds such as hatred, jealousy, egotism, and enmity. We should light the lamps of universal love, unity, and brotherhood. We should strive to make the world happy, healthy, and prosperous.
I remember this festival closely resembling Christmas. There are a lot of preparations. New clothes are bought, old debts are settled, angry quarrels are healed and everyone wishes everyone else good fortune for the New Year. Homes are repainted, fresh curtains are put up, cushions and upholstery are changed. Colored lights are hung at the front door and around the house. Rice flour or flower petal floor design patterns known as rangoli, are placed at the entrance of the front doorsteps to welcome the Goddess Lakshmi. One myth says that she comes down to earth on that evening to visit homes and shower blessings for the New Year.
Donations are given to charity and food banks. We should not only enjoy the delicious vegetarian feast of favorite foods and desserts ourselves but share it with others. Around 5 p.m. that evening an altar is set up and after a special family prayer (puja) ceremony, the diyas are lit and decorated in every room in the house. Small gifts of sweets (mithai), candles, incense, and flowers are exchanged.
Family and friends visit during an open house, where tables of appetizers and desserts are served. Diwali cards and ecards are sent to family, friends, and business associates wishing them a Happy Diwali and a Happy New Year. Games are played until early the next morning. No one goes to bed until the diyas have gone out. Traditionally, it is forbidden to put them out!
An essential part of this general benevolence is sending small boxes of beautifully decorated mithai (desserts) to neighbors, friends, relatives, and business associates. Absolutely no one goes without mithai on Diwali Night. It does not matter how rich or poor you are because everyone joins in to experience the true spirit of love, unity, and brotherhood by the sharing of mithai.
There are often A LOT of competitions held the weeks before Diwali: the best Diwali greeting card design and message contest, rangoli design contest, diya painting contest, table arrangement and floral arrangement contest. Want more? There is the best Diwali song and music contest, the best Diwali dhal, rice, vegetable, bread, yogurt, chutney, beverage, and dessert recipe contests! Even a Diwali photography contest. These are sponsored by local businesses to encourage everyone to participate. The judging becomes tougher each year.
A complete Hindu vegetarian meal consists of six basic items: split lentil soup (dhal), rice, vegetable (subji), bread (roti), yogurt (raita), and chutney. No alcohol is served on Diwali; lemon juice (nimbu pani) or milk is served with food. A freshly brewed cup of Indian milk tea (chai) always follows with mithai. Meals are served in individual, large high-lipped brass or stainless steel serving dishes known as a thali. The dhal, vegetable, and yogurt are served in small separate bowls. All the food is mixed and eaten in the thali, which is a combination plate and bowl with a spoon.
My fondest memory of Diwali was growing up in an extended family with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I was the first grandchild; therefore, I got a lot of attention. My grandparents had a couple of cows and would make an altar for them and light diyas around them. They even put garlands around the two dear cows! They said that they were also a part of our family and must join in the celebration just like us. It was a joy to watch their devotion to them because they produced so much fresh milk for us to drink.
The diyas flickering in the dark Diwali night strengthens our determination to respect knowledge, family togetherness, and a search for a radiant life.
Hindu devotional songs known as bhajans are played and sung in Hindu homes throughout the day of Diwali. The most popular bhajan is Jai Lakshmi Mata: “O Goddess of Light, the dispeller of darkness, sickness, and misery. O Mother Lakshmi, the giver of happiness, health, wealth, and prosperity. I bow to thee, please destroy all my internal enemies: passion, anger, greed, and accept my salutations.”
Indra Persad-Milowe was born in Trinidad, West Indies. She is a visual artist and retired nurse. Her great-grandparents migrated to Trinidad from Raipur, India.