By BELA KIRPALANI
Happy Diwali! Di-what? Many people do not know what the biggest holiday in Indian culture is about. Diwali is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains all around the world, including an estimated 2 million Hindus in the United States. Diwali is traditionally celebrated on the third day of the festival, which this year fell on Wednesday, November 11th. It is the equivalent of a Hindu New Year, however, it is not declared a national holiday in the United States.
Diwali is one of my favorite holidays of the year and holds the utmost importance in my culture. Known as the festival of lights, the most accepted story for the origin of Diwali emanates from the Hindu epic, The Ramayana, in which Lord Rama and his wife, Sita, return from exile after defeating the demon king Ravana in 15th century BC. To commemorate the return of their beloved hero, people set off large firework displays, lit traditional oil lamps called diyas and decorated their homes with colorful rangoli artworks, which are patterns created on the floor using colored powder.
The Hindu New Year celebrates new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil. Thus, celebrations begin by cleaning the entire house a few days prior to Diwali. On the day of, we dress in new clothes and recite prayers. Then, my family rinses our small idols with water and milk. This symbolizes giving the gods a bath and cleaning them for a new year. Then we dress our idols in small dresses we cut out of fabric, and perform an aarti for the gods. An aarti is a Hindu religious ritual in which you move a plate, with an oil lamp on it, and other ritualistic items in a circular motion around the deity. While the aarti is being performed, some religious Hindi songs play in the background. After the prayers are completed, the next step is to feed the gods some Indian sweets, known as mithai, which comes in various flavors and colors. Mithai is made from special flour, various ground nuts, and milk solids.
After we give some to the gods, we feed mithai to each other. Then, my family shares gifts and eat my mother’s homemade Indian food including classic dishes such as vegetable samosas, saag paneer (spinach-based dish served with rice and roti), yellow dal (a split-pea lentil soup), and aloo gobi (a flavorful dish made with potatoes and cauliflower). The food is the best part of the holiday in my opinion!
When Diwali falls on a weekday, such as this year, it is often difficult to find the time to properly celebrate because we don’t get off from school or work for it. When I was younger and in elementary school, I used to take the day off from school to stay home and help my parents prepare for the ritual. However, as I have gotten older, I haven’t been able to take the day off for the single most important holiday in my culture. Celebrating Diwali with all of my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents are some of my most precious memories. Even when I’m off at college next year, I plan to return for this special holiday.