Anjali Charankar-Vale, a GM engineer who lives in suburban Detroit, spends many hours in her kitchen getting ready for Diwali, a major festival in her Hindu faith as well as for Sikhs and Jains. A variety of narratives explain the meaning and significance of the Diwali practices; they differ by religious tradition as well as regionally.
Diwali is the happiest and most widely celebrated festival in India, with a message that so transcends religious boundaries that even some Buddhists and Christians celebrate: the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, truth over falsehood, knowledge over ignorance, hope over despair.
In India many businesses close their books for the year and start the next year on Diwali, so it has the effect of a new year celebration.
In India, said Anjali, Diwali is traditionally a time to shop for new clothes and jewelry and to give gifts, especially gold. In America, where it’s easy to shop all the time, this tradition has become less important, but she agreed it’s always nice to have a good excuse to buy new duds!
A multi-day celebration
The festivities go on for four or five days starting before and continuing after the actual date of Diwali, which falls on the new moon of the Hindu month Kartik.
To celebrate the festival of light, houses, shops, temples and public spaces are decorated with earthenware oil lamps and bright electric lights.
Anjali and her husband Milind, an automotive consultant, come from Mumbai in Maharashra state; each state has unique Diwali traditions.
“Delicious food and firecrackers are the hallmarks of Diwali,” said Anjali. “We make a variety of sweet and spicy snack food items. Traditionally relatives and friends visit each other distributing sweets and wishing everyone best wishes for Diwali and the coming new year.”
In India, schools close for a week or more and most workplaces shut down for three or four days.
Deepak Sarma, writing for Huffington Post, says communal Diwali celebrations in America are fairly recent. When his parents came to the United States in 1968, he said, there were few Indian-Americans, and they celebrated Diwali quietly at home. Now, the population has grown enough, at least in major cities and on college campuses, that large, publicized communal gatherings are common.
Unique rituals for each day
Each day of Diwali has different rituals. On the second day, called Narak Chaturdashi, Anjali and her family get up early in the morning – around 4 or 5 a.m. – to bathe with fragrant oil and a scented herbal powder. Children start setting off firecrackers and the adults go to the temple to pray.
The evening of the third day, the actual day of Diwali, is Laxmi Puja; the Vale family performs rituals at home honoring Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. In India, fireworks follow the home puja.
The final day of Diwali, Bhau-beej, celebrates sisters and brothers. Sisters make special foods for their brothers, who promise to care for and protect them. “It’s kind of a symbolic way to support each other and create a wonderful sibling relationship,” said Anjali.
Here is one of Anjali’s recipes for a Diwali snack, shankarpali.