Divali: the Festival of Lights, the Meaning Behind the Rituals, and the Food!

The fall and winter season is full of festivals and holidays worldwide. Here in the US we celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, to name a few. But for Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains in India, (and for Indians worldwide) the list of winter celebrations also includes the auspicious celebration of Divali!

Divali (also called Diwali) is the Hindi festival of lights.  According to Indian scholar Dr. Vasudha Narayanan, Divali  symbolises the spiritual "victory of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance." The name comes from the row (avali) of clay lamps (deepa) that celebrants light, symbolizing the inner light we all have, protecting us from spiritual darkness. The 5 day festival of Divali (Deepavali), celebrated during the Hindu new year, usually occurs between mid-October and mid-November depending on the Hindu lunar calendar. Like many holidays, Divali is steeped in tradition and is celebrated with large family gatherings, gorgeous decorations, and good food…. And LOTS of it!

I haven’t been in India for Divali (yet!), but it’s definitely on my bucket list. I have, however, been a part of several Divali celebrations, which are festive and lively, delicious, fabulously colorful, and definitely memorable!

Let’s explore the celebration in more detail, so if you’re ever invited to attend a Divali celebration, you’ll have a better understanding of how important this festival is to Indians, and what you definitely want to eat!  

Each of the festival’s five days is celebrated based on the tradition of its own unique history, but there is one constant throughout the each day of the festival: rich food! Here’s a brief explanation of the significance of each day of the Divali celebration:

Day One - Dhanteras (Day of Fortune)

Lakshmi, goddess of fortune, is worshipped today. Fortune can range from general wellness to prosperity to money and anything in between.

On this day, money is purified by washing in milk to renew the family’s intentions for goodwill. Homes and businesses are thoroughly cleaned. It is also a day to practice generosity and buy gold or silver, so this day is a major shopping holiday which you could almost liken to Black Friday in America.  

Goddess Lakshmi
Image credit: HD Wallpapers

Day Two - Naraka Chaturdashi (Day of Knowledge)

Celebrates Lord Krishna slaying the demon Narakasura, therefore rescuing 16,000 captive princesses. The story signifies the protection Lord Krishna offers to his people, and souls being liberated from their Naraka (hell). This day is celebrated by creating meticulous rangoli patterns on the ground or floor using rice, flour, colored sand or flower petals.

Indian Rangoli

image credit: https://thechampatree.in/2017/10/10/indian-rangoli/

Indian Rangoli

image credit: Star of Mysore

Day Three - Divali (Day of Light)

The largest celebration of Divali takes place on the third day, the end of the Hindu calendar year.  Today marks a new moon, and the darkest day of the month. This day also celebrates Lord Rama rescuing his wife, Lakshmi Puja, from the demon Ravana after an epic battle. On the night he returned home, his followers lit the path to his home so he could travel easily through the darkness.

Today, candles are lit in mass and fireworks are set off to signify the triumph of good conquering evil. To welcome Lakshmi into their homes, celebrants place illuminated lamps or lanterns in their windows.

It is also on this day that families will gather for a large meal, which takes days to prepare. Cooks will use fancy and expensive Ghee to make treats that are reserved just for this occasion.  I’ve listed some of my personal Divali favorites below, and please note that this is in no way an extensive list! Rather, it’s just the beginning, but I’m getting hungry!😋

Samosas: pocket pastries, triangular in shape, stuffed with seasoned potatoes, peas, and sometimes minced meat.  Usually served with sweet and spicy chutney.

Aloo Tikki: shredded potatoes that are formed into patties and deep fried.  Usually served with yogurt, spicy mint sauce, and tamarind chutney.

Pakoras: Vegetable strips that are dipped in batter then deep fried.  So mmmm good!

Soan Papdi: a sweet and flaky dessert made from chikpea flower with a decadent cardamom flavor.  Imagine dense cotton candy that tastes like Cardamom!

Divali Food

image credit: Strand of Silk

Day Four - Annakut (New Year)

Tradition says that Kirshna lifted the Govardhan Hill to shelter villages from a flood that Indra, King of Heaven, caused out of vengeance.

To celebrate, food is piled up to resemble the Govardhan Hill at Hindu temples as an offering to Krishna. This day reminds Hindus to be humble, and also celebrates the bond of husband and wife.

Annakut Celebrations-Bhuj

image credit: Shree Swaminarayan

Day Five - Bhai Duj (Day of Sibling Love)

Also called Yama Dwiteeya, this day marks when Yamaraj,Lord of Death and the Custodian of Hell, visits his sister Yami who gives him a mark on his forehead while praying for his well being. It is believed that men who receive a tilak from his sister will be protected from hell.

Another legend says that this is the day when Lord Krishna visits his sister Subhadra after slaying the Narakasura demon. She welcomes him with a holy lamp, flowers, sweets and marks his forehead with a tilak.

To celebrate this day, brothers visit their sisters’ homes to ensure they’re being well cared for and to give them gifts.

Bhai Dooj: Brother sister ritual

image credit: Hemant Mehta / Getty Images, found via ThoughtCo 

Divali is, like most things India, an incredibly stimulating experience! If you ever get an invitation to attend a Divali celebration, go! Your taste buds will thank you, and it’s sure to be a cultural experience you won’t soon forget!

If you're as enchanted by India as I am, you might like some of these handcrafted items that we source directly from India:

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