Diwali Through the Eyes of our Youth – the Cultural Festival that Lights Up the World

By Hayley White

Reading time: 13 minutes

Diwali is one of the most celebrated Hindu festivals pan India and is beloved by all its people. It is also the most famous of all Hindu celebrations worldwide and is a popular festival here in New Zealand, too. Diwali was first introduced to New Zealand in 2002 and is divided into two large public events hosted by Wellington and Auckland city councils. Also called the ‘Festival of Lights’, it signifies the triumph of good over evil, light over dark, and renewal of life.

Diwali, or Deepavali as it is otherwise known, stretches back more than 2,500 years and is mentioned in early Sanskrit texts. It is celebrated in Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism and linked to multiple stories within these texts. One such story is the most central to Diwali – the story of Lord Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, the protector and preserver of the universe. When the evil King Ravana captured Rama’s wife, Sita and took her to Lanka (often thought to be Sri Lanka), Rama waged war against him to save Sita and return her home to Ayodhya. On his way, because there was no moonlight, lamps or diyas were lit to guide him. A story from Southern India tells that of the Hindu god

By Hayley White

Reading time: 13 minutes

Diwali is one of the most celebrated Hindu festivals pan India and is beloved by all its people. It is also the most famous of all Hindu celebrations worldwide and is a popular festival here in New Zealand, too. Diwali was first introduced to New Zealand in 2002 and is divided into two large public events hosted by Wellington and Auckland city councils. Also called the ‘Festival of Lights’, it signifies the triumph of good over evil, light over dark, and renewal of life.

Diwali, or Deepavali as it is otherwise known, stretches back more than 2,500 years and is mentioned in early Sanskrit texts. It is celebrated in Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism and linked to multiple stories within these texts. One such story is the most central to Diwali – the story of Lord Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, the protector and preserver of the universe. When the evil King Ravana captured Rama’s wife, Sita and took her to Lanka (often thought to be Sri Lanka), Rama waged war against him to save Sita and return her home to Ayodhya. On his way, because there was no moonlight, lamps or diyas were lit to guide him. A story from Southern India tells that of the Hindu god Krishna, another incarnation of Vishnu, who saves around 16,000 women from the demon King Narakasura. In the West Indian state of Gujarat, Diwali links up with the New Year, so the people perform rituals to pray to the Goddess Lakshmi for luck and prosperity.

Each day of Diwali heralds a new celebration. Dhanteras is the first day that marks the festival of Diwali where Lord Kubera (God of all the money in the world) and Lakshmi are worshipped. This is followed by Choti Diwali, the day before Diwali when people decorate their houses and light diyas and candles. Diwali, the third day of the festival, known also as Deepavali Puja or Lakshmi-Ganesh Puja, is when the main Diwali event takes place. Many believe Lakshmi roams the earth, so Hindus celebrate this day by worshipping Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha, the God of beginnings. The fourth day is called Govardhan Puja on which thanks is given to by the preparing and offering of vegetarian food to the god Lord Krishna, Govardhan Hill and Godhan (Cow). On the final day, the festival ends with the Bhai Dooj when sisters invite their brothers for an extravagant meal and perform a ’tilak’ ceremony. Sisters pray for their brothers’ long and happy life while the brothers give them gifts in return.

Aashish Kulkarni, is a B honours student studying software engineering at Auckland University of Technology (AUT). He and AUT alumnus Surbhi Poddar are events and communications coordinators for the AUT Indian Student Association. They say that Diwali is an important festival for bringing families and people together because of everything it represents. But they say trying to keep that spirit alive during Covid has been a challenge they have had to face head-on.

 

“Usually, families would travel far distances to meet the relatives, especially if they’re living in two corners of the city. There’s a lot of family gatherings, celebrations, and events, and, because of covid, all of it has been cancelled. So, they don’t travel across the country to see their grandparents or their uncles and aunties now,” Aashish says.

“Diwali has become more of an at-home festival, instead of going out, distributing sweets, and burning crackers with your friends. Because of Covid, people are only celebrating within their space, either by cooking something really delicious with their family or, thanks to technology now, video calling families overseas.” Aashish says this has become common practice in his household.

Having moved to New Zealand in 2019, Surbhi also video calls her family during Diwali. “With my family in India, my brother sets up the video call for us so that I can be there because there’s a time zone difference and we can’t do the rituals at the same point of time,” Surbhi tells me.

“Being seven and a half-hours earlier than when Diwali is celebrated in India, I set up the video call from here. When I was doing the rituals, I showcased for them, and they did the same so that we are virtually still present in all the rituals. The one big thing in every Indian festival is that the whole family has to be there so that everyone is together.”

This is just one of the many changes Indian youth living in New Zealand have had to overcome, but it’s one of the most important. Surbhi says that when the Indian calendar was originally designed, it was made in a way that did not account for weekends. Instead, every few months would be a holiday where Indians could return home and see their families. This way everyone gets to take time off work and relax and no one misses out on seeing family, Surbhi says. So, Diwali is always celebrated at a specific point in the year.

“As per the Hindu calendar, Diwali is observed on the new moon, the 15th day of the Kartik month, between the October and November of the English calendar and usually celebrated after the Dussehra,” says Surbhi.

The Dussehra, otherwise known as Vijayadashami, takes place 20 days before the 5-week long Diwali event. It is celebrated differently around India and represents different things. In a Diwali context, when King Ravana was defeated in the great war between him and Lord Ram, it took Lord Ram 20 days to return home to Ayodhya. Lord Ram started travelling home during the new moon when there was no moonlight to guide him. This was why people lit oil lamps made out of clay, sand, or dirt called diyas to help him guide his way back home. “That is why Diwali is called the festival of lights,” Surbhi tells me.

“There are different types of diyas,” comments Aashish. “You’ll find some which are circular, oval shaped, and you’ll also find diyas in different colours. Some are dark reddish, some are light brown, it usually depends on the soil. So, depending on what part of India you belong to, the soil colour or the texture might be different, and it really affects what the diya looks like.”

Surbhi goes on to tell me that a lot of small and local business owners make a living off creating diyas for the festival. They decorate and paint them and create various totems for people to hang in their houses and their doorways.

The diyas are only one part of the many different traditions expressed during Diwali and the preparations are done a month in advance. People clean all the junk out of their houses and decorate them with multicoloured lights and frills. The markets fill up with everything they need like gift items, dresses, and floral arrangements. People draw rangoli (the creation of designs with colourful chalk powder) outside of their houses, too. “Rangoli is a beautiful artform to show how multiple colours are derived and how various designs are made,” says Aashish.

During the actual Diwali celebrations, massive feasts are cooked, and gifts are exchanged. Aashish emphasises that it is the time for prosperity and goodwill to flourish between people.

“Basically, the main purpose is to make sure the bonding between families continues,” he tells me.

“In India, it’s very common to have large families, so to ensure people don’t split away from each other or get disconnected, Diwali is an example of why we consider it mandatory that families come together and spend time with each other or how brothers and sisters are encouraged to protect each other when in need of help. Therefore Diwali plays a large role in what parents teach their children too.”

“There’s a small extract from the story of Rama; it shows that after a certain war between Ravana’s army and Rama’s army, some of the opposition soldiers fell dead. In the Hindi culture we burn the bodies,” says Aashish.

“So, Rama and his soldiers burnt Ravana’s soldiers. Lakshmana, Rama’s younger brother, asks him, ‘Brother, why are you burning the enemy’s body; they were the ones who were attacking us?’ so Rama says, ‘It is our duty to make sure that we burn their body. You can leave their body to rot, but it’s not ethical, so the right thing to do is make sure we pay homage to their bodies. Yes, they may not have been on our side, but they did their part of being a soldier.’ So there’s some good qualities within Rama which our parents have always wanted us to learn and carry forward.”

Surbhi explains that their families use these stories during Diwali to teach their children to let go of grudges and to help people when they are in need. “One of the specialities of Diwali is that people forget grudges; they forgive injustice and move on in their life,” she tells me.

“We reflect on our past deeds and look forward to the new year, to do right things, bring right changes in our lives, and share with others. Diwali is the festival of bringing everyone together to celebrate freedom, festivity, and friendliness.”

As for what youth are doing differently now with Diwali, Aashish and Surbhi gave me some information about India’s struggle with firecrackers. While they are a popular form of expression for Diwali in celebrating the victory of Lord Rama and his return to Ayodhya, easy access to firecrackers through industrialisation led to burning them excessively. Because of increased air pollution (5% by Diwali fireworks, Wikipedia) and burn injuries, and considering people’s health, Indian youth began spreading awareness about firecracker safety.

This same industrialisation and modernisation of India led to the loss of momentum of culture. Because of this, India’s youth celebrate Diwali by looking a little closer into the heritage and cultural aspects of the festival that have been passed onto them from past generations. Diwali is a beautiful festival of light and colours that lights up the world, along with India’s youth. Young people like Aashish and Surbhi, and all the future generations of Indian youth, will carry these traditions on with them for the entire world to enjoy.

Photo: Anirudh, Unsplash

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