Diwali: A Sense-ational festival

Learn about Diwali's origins. Read an account of Deepavali celebration in the 1950s.

Collage of Lakshmi, Krishna, Rama, Vamana & Bali, Yama

Lakshmi. Krishna. Rama. Vamana. Yama.

Each of them have events that get commemorated around the same time as Diwali - festival of lights. Also festival of sounds and tastes!

Collage of Lamps, Firecrackers, SnacksFestival of Lights, Sounds, Tastes

Festival of lights because of the lamps that are lit. Of sounds due to the fireworks that are part of the festivities.

Festival of tastes for the special sweets and savories that we get to eat during Deepavali. One could also say it is a festival of smells and touch too !

The smells of the gun powder from the fireworks. And of course, the smells of the eatables.

The touch of the new dress one wears. So, a complete sensory experience constitutes this festival.

Diwali vs Deepavali

This is one festival that is celebrated across almost all Hindu traditions. With names that almost sound the same. It is mostly called Diwali in traditions of the north. Deepavali in the southern traditions.

Diwali is a shortened form of Deepavali. With the "pa" missing.

Deepavali ~ Deevali ~ Divali ~ Diwali

The Five Day Celebration






Nov 13

Dhanteras (Dhana Trayodashi)

Lakshmi emerged from Samudra manthana


Nov 14

Naraka Chaturdashi

Krishna killed Narakasura


Nov 14

Diwali / Amaavaasya

Rama & Co returned to Ayodhya. Lakshmi Puja. Welcoming Bali.


Nov 15

Bali Pratipat

Bali's annual visit after Vamana sent him to Paataala


Nov 16

Bhai Dooj (Yama Dvitiya)

Yama visited twin sister Yamuna

The festival falls in October or November of each year. One could broadly say it is a five day festival.

The Amaavaasya (New Moon). And two days before it. And two days after it.

In the above table, the 5 days are lunar days. Since a lunar day could be a few hours less or a few hours more than 24 hours, each day may not correspond one to one to a date.

Each of the five days commemorates five different events. So, one could even say there are five different reasons to celebrate.

However, what could be a likely explanation is that the five events happen to be around the same time. Each tradition chooses to observe one of them.

Or some of them. Or all of those five events.

Or even none of them. As in the case of Malayalam traditions. Malayalam traditions are the only major Hindu traditions not to observe Deepavali or anything related to the five events.

We could speculate on why of it. One of the five events is Bali's annual visit to earth.

But, for Malayalam traditions, Bali already completed his annual visit roughly two months earlier (August/September). That is celebrated as Onam.

Dhanteras marks the event when Lakshmi emerged from the Samudra manthana (ocean churning). Naraka Chaturdashi is when Krishna killed Narakasura.

Significance of Diwali Amaavaasya varies from tradition to tradition. Most traditions light lamps on this night.

Some mark it as the day Rama, Sita, Lakshmana returned to Ayodhya after 14 years. For some the lighting of lamps is to welcome Bali on his annual visit.

For many traditions it is a day to express gratitude to wealth generators. Be it in the form of Goddess Lakshmi.

In an agriculture context the wealth generators include the fields, gobar (cowdung) pits, wells. Lamps are lit at each of them and worshiped.

Bali Pratipath involves Bali and Vamana who sent him to Paataala. Bhaai Dhooj (Yama Dvitiyaa) involves Yama and his sister Yamuna

In Bhavishya Purana

A chapter in Bhavishya Purana narrates the celebration of Deepavali. Here the celebration marks King Bali's day on earth.

It was the time when Vamana sent Bali to Paataala. It was agreed that Bali could visit earth and his praja once a year.

The chapter mentions

  • early morning bath on Chaturdashi (Day 2).
  • lighting of lamps on the night of Amaavaasya (Day 3)
  • puja to Bali during the day on Prathamaa (Day 4)

Each of the three activities are still observed in some tradition or the other.

For example the Day 2 activity is the Deepavali event in Tamil traditions. Day 4 activity is observed in the Kannada and Marathi traditions.

Kaveri Delta in 1950s

I asked my grandmother about how Deepavali was celebrated in her younger days. She has spent two-thirds of her life in the hamlet of Pakkam Parutiyur in the Kaveri Delta region. Here is a rough translation what she said in Tamil:

Preparations start a few days earlier. New clothes are purchased. Fire crackers ordered and home delivered.

An elderly person (Thatha) from nearby village comes to prepare Deepavali Pakshanam [snacks].

The festival eatables included sweets like Kunjaalaadu, Mohan-laadu, Poruvilangaai Urundai, Mysore Paak, Jilebi, Goduma Halwa. Thenkuzal and Kaaraaboondi were the savouries.

New clothes, fire crackers and sesame oil are distributed to village residents. This is done on the day prior to Deepavali.

Fire crackers are burst the night before. The bursting goes on till 10pm.

People resume fireworks within a few hours (at about 2am). [This is the morning of Tamil Deepavali - Naraka Chaturdashi]

Sesame oil is heated with spices. Sitalakshmi Paatti [her mother-in-law and the eldest in the family] gives a head massage with that oil to rest of the family members.

The ven-neer aduppu [the wood fueled fire to heat water for bathing] is decorated with kolam. Sandanam [Sandal paste] and Kumkumam are applied to the ven-neer tavalai [the big brass water pot].

The elders bathe the children in the hot water. Later they bathe too.

New clothes are worn, Pakshanam eaten, and crackers burst. Lunch is with Vada and Paayasam (Vada Paayasattodu Saappaadu)

This narration is very specific to Tamil traditions.

The interesting fact is, despite variations on why it is celebrated, this is known by similar sounding names - Diwali or Deepavali.

  1. Hindu
  2. Festivals
  3. Diwali

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