Sunday, October 18, 2009


Last night at dinner, I was able to explain Diwali (pronounced “Divali,” and meaning “row of lamps”) to a tableful of people while my husband Mowgli (not his real name) was in another room. When he returned, he commented that I’m starting to know more about Hinduism than he does.

It’s not that I have the fervor of a convert; I don’t practice Hinduism, or any other religion, on a daily basis. But when he doesn’t know the answers to my questions, he’ll take down a book from a shelf, or go online, and then my love of research takes over.

So, though there’s a lot more to the holiday than this, here’s what I’ve learned about Diwali:

- The central theme is good triumphing over evil, and hence light over darkness. This springs from the festival being the anniversary of the death of a demon (see below) as well as a harvest festival.

- In Southern India, Diwali is celebrated as the death anniversary of the demon Narakasura, who had been terrorizing the earth and imprisoning women. There are two versions of how the demon was killed; one is that Krishna beheaded him with his discus, and the other is that his wife, Satyabhama, killed him when he knocked Krishna out. She was able to do this because the demon had received a boon from Brahma that he could only be killed by his mother – and Krishna’s wife happened to be a reincarnation of the demon’s mother.

- In Northern India, Diwali is celebrated as the homecoming of the god Rama following a 14-year exile and the defeat of the nasty king Ravana, who had kidnapped Rama’s wife, Sita. Clay lamps filled with oil are lit to welcome him.

- Lakshmi (goddess of wealth, light, prosperity, fertility and wisdom) is a central figure during Diwali; this has to do with the harvest aspect of the festival. To do a proper Diwali, you should clean your house thoroughly so that when Lakshmi visits, she will be pleased.

- Diwali is a time when you forgive transgressions and accept forgiveness. Accounts are settled, new accounts are opened, and people visit with each other and exchange sweets.

- Celebrations go on for days in India and vary according to religion (Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists also celebrate Diwali), and vary according to the region and individual traditions.

In our house, we poured water on the front walk and steps and lit sparklers, dabbed our heads with oil (probably related to Krishna taking an oil bath to cleanse himself of the demon’s blood), showered, put on new clothes, prayed in front of our house shrine, and then had some rock candy.

Mowgli might be right about my growing Hinduism knowledge in certain cases, but if there’s a pop quiz on gods and goddesses, he’ll beat me every time. And without his mother, we’d both be lost; Mowgli prepared the shrine and directed the ritual according to her directions.


  1. Sparkle. Sprinkle. Shower.

    There's a great movie in the Krishna/Narakasura conflict.

  2. I love reading about the way you and Mowgli (not his real name) celebrate all of this together. It is very sweet that you are taking this and making it yours as a couple, not just something he wants to do or vice versa. There is also something very special about celebrating in your home that makes it more intimate and meaningful.

  3. Indeed, Jay, that would be fab, especially if it were a Bollywood-style one with dancing and singing and costumes.

    Thanks, Anonymous, that's a really nice way to put it -- and it does always feel meaningful.

  4. I just returned from my first trip to India (primarily Kolkata with a side trip to Darjeeling) where in addition to attending my sister's Jain wedding - she married a man from Kolkata - I was invited to attend a Diwali service which took place at a business office where the books were blessed by the officiating Pundit for prosperity in the new year and we all fed each other sweets (using only right hands of course).

    Now a question: I am searching in St. Louis Missouri for a seamstress to sew the blouses to some sarees I brought back & teach me how to wrap them- any ideas on where to find a seamstress or tailor with this knowledge?

    Thank you.

  5. Kathy -- I need to track down the info for the gal I went to a few years ago, but you could try calling Hema Patel at India Bazaar. She would probably know, and she's very helpful.


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