The Many Legends of Diwali

Diwali is a five day festival, and there are various legends and regional traditions behind the celebration. Let's explore some of them!

By Google Arts & Culture

Illustrations by Avishek Mukherjee

Diwali Celebrations (2020) by Avishek Mukherjee

The festival of lights

One of the most popular Hindu festivals, Diwali is celebrated in the month of Kartika (between mid October and mid November). It gets its name from the Sanskrit word Deepawali which means rows of lights. Diwali symbolizes the victory of good over evil. 

Among the Hindus, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity is worshipped on this day. The day of Diwali is also celebrated with fervor by the Sikhs and the Jains.

There are various legends behind the celebration of Diwali, even within Hinduism. Let's explore some of these.

Lord Rama Returns to Ayodhya (2020) by Avishek Mukherjee

Diwali in Ramayana

The most popular legend is that from the Hindu epic, Ramayana. According to it, Diwali marks the day Rama, Sita and Lakshmana return to Ayodhya after 14 years in exile.

Vanvas - Rama, Sita and Laxmana Leaving for Exile (2020) by Avishek Mukherjee

Exiled by his own father King Dasharatha, Rama, his wife Sita and his brother, Laxmana, face various hardships as they travel through the forests.

Sita Haran - The Abduction of Sita (2020) by Avishek Mukherjee

In exile, Sita is kidnapped by the powerful demon king Ravana. 

Jatayu the divine bird valiantly tries to fight off Ravana, but the powerful Ravana mercilessly clips his wings. He takes Sita across the sea to his kingdom of Lanka. 

Ram Setu - Lord Ram Crosses the Sea (2020) by Avishek Mukherjee

Rama, with the help of Sugriva, the king of the Vanaras, and his trusted general Hanuman make a bridge of stones over the sea to reach Lanka. The stones are blessed with buoyancy, so they do not sink.

Ravana Wadh - The Slaying of Ravana (2020) by Avishek Mukherjee

In the fight of good over evil, Rama slays Ravana, and rescues Sita.

Lord Rama Returns to Ayodhya (2020) by Avishek Mukherjee

Victorious, they return to Ayodhya. To welcome them, the people of Ayodhya clean their houses and place oil lamps to light their path. The ritual of lighting oil lamps is an integral part of Diwali celebrations to this day.

The Pandava Brothers Return to Their Kingdom (2020) by Avishek Mukherjee

Diwali in Mahabharata

Amongst the many other legends associated with Diwali is yet another story of exile. Only this time, it is about the Pandava brothers and can be found in the Hindu epic of Mahabharata. The five Pandava brothers lose all their possessions in a deceitful game of dice against the cunning Kauravas. 

After years of innumerable hardships, the brothers and their wife Draupadi return back to their kingdom on the dark moonless night of Kartika Amavasya. Their loyal subjects, overjoyed at their return, light numerous earthen lamps to welcome them.

The Spiritual Awakening of the Lord Mahavira (2020) by Avishek Mukherjee

Day of Diwali in Jainism

An important festival of the Jains, Diwali marks the nirvana or spiritual awakening of Lord Mahavira, the 24th Jain Tirthankara. Jain scriptures refer to Diwali as Dipalikaya which means light leaving the body. To mark the significance of Lord Mahavira’s enlightenment, the earth and heavens were illuminated with lamps.

Guru Hargobind Sahib Leaves Prison with 52 Princes (2020) by Avishek Mukherjee

Bandi Chorh Diwas in Sikhism

A major festival for the Sikhs, the day of Diwali is celebrated as Bandi Chorh Diwas (Day of Liberation), marking the day that the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind Sahib and 52 other prisoners were released from captivity.

Historic accounts note that emperor Jahangir released Guru Hargobind Sahib whom he had imprisoned for years. The Guru however declared that he would not leave unless the 52 other princes imprisoned with him would be released too. The emperor said that only those who could hold on to the Guru's cloak would be allowed to leave prison. 

Guru Hargobind Sahib had a cloak made with 52 pieces of strings so that each prince was able to walk out of prison along with the Guru.

The Guru’s liberation was celebrated with lighting of lamps, a tradition that continues to this day.

Diwali Celebrations (2020) by Avishek Mukherjee

Diwali is a five day festival!

Marked by festive fervour, Diwali is celebrated over five days. A festival with many myths and legends behind it, Diwali is the time when friends and families get together. Gifts and sweets are exchanged generously as people visit each other’s house.

Day 1

Dhanteras marks the beginning of the five days long Diwali celebrations. After a day of cleaning the house, people worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth to bless them with prosperity in the coming year. They also worship Kuber the treasurer of wealth. It is said that buying gold jewellery and new utensils on this day helps bring good fortune.

Along with Lakshmi, Ganesha, who is the God of auspicious beginnings is also prayed to on Diwali. The puja is followed by fireworks, feasting and general festivity. However, with the world becoming more sensitive to the noise and air pollution caused by Diwali crackers there is a movement towards a greener, quieter Diwali. 

Day 2

The second day is celebrated as Naraka Chaturdashi across Tamil Nadu, Goa and Karnataka. According to mythology, it is the day that Lord Krishna slayed the tyrant demon Narkasura. It is a major day for purchasing festive foods, particularly sweets. In northern India, this day is celebrated as Chhoti Diwali (Small Diwali). It is the day for wearing new clothes, visiting friends, business associates and relatives, and exchanging gifts.

Day 3

The third day is the main day of the festival, and coincides with the last day of the dark fortnight of the lunar month. Diwali is the day when feasts are cooked, houses are decorated with colourful rangolis at the entrance, cheerful torans on the doorway and the dark night is lit aglow with earthen oil lamps (diyas), truly making it a festival of lights.

A unique tradition on Diwali night is the game of cards. Stemming from the ganjifa card traditions played in royal courts, it is now probably the only time in the year when this vice is accepted as a norm! Believed to please Lakshmi, it symbolises the fluid nature of wealth in our lives and our acceptance of this truth.

Sister Applying a Tika to Her Brother's Forehead on Bhai Dooj (2020) by Avishek Mukherjee

Day 4

The day after Diwali is celebrated as Goverdhan Puja by some communities of the north, west and central regions, honouring the legend of the Hindu god Krishna who lifted the Goverdhan mountain to save the cowherd and farming communities from incessant rains and floods triggered by Lord Indra's anger. 

Annakut, a special preparation of all the available vegetables and spices is made on this day and served to friends and family. It is believed that under the Govardhan, Krishna asked everyone to contribute what they had in terms of food. United as a community, the people were able to stave off hunger and survive the calamity.

Day 5

The last or the 5th day of the festivities is marked by celebrating Bhai Duj (brother's day). It is also known as Bhau BeejBhai Tilak or Bhai Phonta. It celebrates the sacred bond between a brother and sister. The sister puts a tilak on her brother’s forehead while the brother gives her a gift to show his love. 

There are two polular legends behind this day. For some it symbolizes Yama's sister Yamuna welcoming Yama with a tilaka, while others interpret it as Subhadra welcoming her brother Lord Krishna after his victory over Narakasura. 

Explore the different styles of rangoli made during Diwali. 

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Credits: Story

Illustrations by Avishek Mukherjee.

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