Diwali : The Light to Life | Daily News

Diwali : The Light to Life

Hindus in Sri Lanka and across the globe celebrate their vibrant Festival of Lights today, November 14. Diwali or Dipawali has been deeply woven into the Hindu faith for centuries. It is a time of resurgence in terms of spirituality guided by the light: in a physical and divine sense. Living in multi-ethnic Sri Lanka, we have been blessed to learn about other religions and their ardent traditions. The memories of Diwali bring to mind the radiant glow of lamps, the smiling faces lighting the lamps and the gathering of family members and neighbours. The taste of traditional Tamil sweets is another happy flashback.

Diwali originates from the Sanskrit word Dipawali, where ‘dipa’ denotes lamp or candle and the word ‘awali’ means row. In the Tamil language, the word for flame is ‘theepam’, and hence the Tamil pronunciation emphasizes as theepavali, in contrast to the Indian Diwali. Thus we have the symbolic manifestation of oil lamps or lanterns in a row. Light dispels darkness. It is a common religious belief in all religions.

According to lunar movements, the month of Ashwin gives way to the holy month of Kartik with the appearance of the New Moon. Diwali follows the other famous Hindu observance of Navaratri, the Festival of Nine Nights. In keeping with the religious rituals inculcated since childhood, most Hindus observe various kinds of dietary abstinence in the days leading to Diwali (from the culmination of Navaratri).

The ancient Indian text ‘Padma Purana’ notes that lamps symbolize the Sun - the cosmic source of light and energy. In ancient kingdoms, there was a practice where newly-engaged couples were given gifts amidst the glow of oil lamps. As we look deeper into history, the ninth century scrolls of ‘Kavyamimamsa’ describe a Hindu ritual of lighting lamps and whitewashing houses. During the festival of Dipamalika, even the markets are lit up at night. This shows the involvement of the entire community.

During the 16th century, the renowned Portuguese traveller Domingo also wrote about a Hindu festival of lights in the Vijayanagara Empire. This empire had existed in the 13th century established by the Sangama Dynasty. During its peak, it ruled the Deccan Plateau regions.

In ancient traditions, the Diwali festival actually lasted five days with the final day being the grand climax. In India, a nation filled with so many dialects and multi-religious doctrines, some Hindus also believe that the festival also remembers the day when the warrior Rama defeated Ravana and then returned to his home in Ayodhya. Yet another belief is that Krishna killed the demon Narakasura. After this, Krishna is said to have released thousands of girls held captive by King Narakasura.

Still, others like to associate the day with the birth of Goddess Lakshmi (prosperity), who was born during this time from the ‘Samudra Mantham’ - the churning of the cosmic ocean of milk by the Devas. (Next time you go to Bangkok, check out the massive sculpture that depicts this scene at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport).

The eastern Indians affiliate Diwali with the deity Kali. Whatever the historical attachments Diwali is a universal celebration of light dispelling darkness, wisdom illuminating ignorance and good triumphing over evil forces.

For centuries, the other family routines associated with Diwali, or the week leading to the festival are the painting and cleaning of furniture. This practice may not be done annually in big cities, especially in towering apartments. But the practice is symbolic of change, a new chapter in a spiritual dimension.

During my travels, I have been privileged to see homes being cleaned in the Northern Province. In Jaffna and other rural villages, the cleaning of the house is not limited to a coating of new paint. The cleansing ritual is a family affair with a senior person in charge or under the supervision of a wise grandparent. The gardens are swept, and overhanging intrusive branches of trees are cut. If the residence has a cattle shed, this structure is duly cleaned. The furniture is carefully taken outside. The house is ceremonially sprinkled with saffron induced water (nature’s dynamic antiseptic).

Depending on the size of the house and available manpower, the walls are painted or whitewashed. During this cleaning process, food is served to all present, with refreshing cups of tea or glasses of green Nelli crush. The atmosphere is even more beautiful if the residence is a “nachiyar” design house with a large open air quadrangle in the centre. The cleaning ritual is extended to village Kovils as well. During this exercise, the entire community comes together for a long day of work, enhanced with the blessings of the resident priests. This is the real essence of living, when people unite. This year with COVID-19, these rituals and gatherings are limited.

Another Hindu practice is the use of Rangoli (Kolam). These colourful designs placed gently on the floor radiate a stunning visual. It is a display of patience and a person wishing the wellbeing of their families. The dainty kolam takes the shape of flowers or geometric designs. Most of the colourful rangoli/kolam are influenced by auspicious symbols and are symmetrical. Some Hindus opine that the rangoli is associated with the deity Thirumaal. Diwali is a time of decorating homes and wearing new clothes. The lights at night enrich the religious aura. May the deeper glow of righteousness invade our conscience during this Diwali.