The smell of incense sticks, the promise of new clothes and the glow of diyas: these are all signs of Diwali. An abbreviation of Dipavali meaning 'a row of lamps', Diwali announces the coming of winter and spans five days of festivities.
Diwali is grandly celebrated, not just in India, but in countries and diasporic communities across the globe. And while many associate Diwali with Ram’s return to Ayodhya, its origin stories are far more varied. Each day of the festival tells a different story and honours a different deity.
Diwali is closely connected to commerce and the first day of the festival is all about celebrating wealth. In fact, Dhan in itself, a Sanskrit word, translates to wealth. It is an auspicious time to buy jewellery and other metals as many businesses go on sale and offer enticing discounts to customers. Alongside Dhanvantri, the God of Ayurveda, Lakshmi also takes centre stage. In northern regions of the country, many buy jewellery or a new car believing that it will bring good luck.
It is no surprise that Lakshmi’s image entered the realm of advertising in the early 20th century. Given her association with beauty and prosperity, she makes a suitable brand ambassador for businesses and products ranging from cleaning utensils to mutual funds. Even today, many advertising campaigns that release during the time of Diwali mention Lakshmi in their slogans and catchphrases to attract customers.
According to legend, on Dhanteras, Lakhmi emerges from the ocean of milk. In this popular Hindu myth, the devas briefly form an alliance with the asuras to churn the ksheer sagar (ocean of milk) and bring to the surface the nectar of immortality (or amrit). As the devas and asuras laboriously churn the ocean using Vasuki (the snake god) like a rope, a number of things emerge: from Kamadhenu (the wish-granting cow) to Chandra (the moon). This episode is known as the Samudra Manthan (or the churning of the ocean) during which Lakshmi appears and chooses Vishnu as her consort.
Lakshmi is also worshipped on the third day of Diwali, that falls on Amavasya or the new moon. To welcome the goddess into the home and in honour of her visit, devotees typically clean and paint the house. The puja begins after sunset during which lamps are lit to dispel any darkness. Offerings of sweets, dry fruits, coconut and chiura (flattened rice) are made to the goddess.
In this postcard depicting the Lakshmi Puja, a range of sources illuminate Lakshmi and the space. Apart from the overhead chandelier and lanterns, two golden lamps flank her, and a row of lit candles are seen placed upon the parapet behind her.
It might seem strange that Kali Puja, typically celebrated in the Eastern states, falls under the umbrella of Diwali festivities. After all, Kali is known for her fierce and wrathful features, and is usually associated with death, famine and violence which offers a strong contrast to the more subdued presence of Lakshmi. However, the inclusion of Kali puja into Diwali is perhaps connected to the samudra manthan from which both Lakshmi and Kali emerge as opposites.
A chromolithograph of Kali standing on Shiva’s supine corpse. The fierce features of Kali are delineated here: the protruding tongue, the girdle of heads that she wears as a necklace, the severed head that she holds in her hand, the sacrificial sword, and her blood-stained hands. On the other hand, the depiction of Lakshmi on a textile label is pastoral, with a green landscape, flowing waters, birds – all highlighting the gentle and fertile aspects of the goddess.
Kali Puja’s origins can be traced to mid-eighteenth century Bengal, when King Krishnachandra ordered his subjects to perform the rituals associated with it. The preparations usually begin at midnight with offerings such as fruits, vegetables and rice made to the goddess. In Tantric traditions, animals such as goats and buffaloes were also offered as sacrifice.
Along with Durga Puja, Kali Puja is celebrated with great spectacle in Bengal. A walk through the streets of Kolkata during this time, will bring you face-to-face with a variety of grand clay idols as well as lavishly decorated pandals or temporary shrines.
This photograph by Marc Riboud depicts a weary potter taking a nap, and a break from sculpting a number of idols for Kali Puja – visible behind him, in different stages of readiness. The photograph was likely taken in Kumartuli (or the potters' quarter) in Kolkata, which is famed for its idol-making and extremely busy during festival periods.
The fourth day of Diwali marks Govardhan Puja which commemorates the lifting of Mount Govardhan by Krishna, a significant moment in the Bhagavata Purana. The story begins when Krishna convinces the cowherds in Braj to worship the Govardhan Mountain instead of Indra, the king of the gods, as the mountain provides resources for sustenance. Upon hearing this, Indra is overcome with anger and vows to destroy Braj by causing a torrential downpour. The cowherds are now trapped in this flood and fear for their lives. They look towards Krishna to save them and he comes to their rescue, lifting Mount Govardhan under which they can shelter.
On the day of Govardhan puja, therefore, devotees offer a symbolic mountain of sumptuous vegetarian food to Krishna as a reflection of their gratitude. The worship of cow dung is another central ritual in the puja; some devotees fashion the dung into a heaped pile in the shape of Mount Govardhan or even into the form of a human figure.
A pichwai depicting Shrinathji Swaroop, a manifestation of Krishna, worshipped by the Pushtimarg sect. Shrinathji is depicted with his left hand raised signifying the lifting of Mount Govardhan. A mountain of food is presented to him as part of the Annakoot celebrations
Bali Pratipada, known as Bali padyami in South India, is also celebrated on the fourth day of Diwali. Bali, a demon king, was the grandson of Prahlad—an ardent devotee of Vishnu. He is believed to have been a benevolent, prosperous and just ruler. However, the gods grew concerned when Bali chose to use his powers to control all the three worlds, including the heavens that had always been their domain. They approached Vishnu to help address the problem. Vishnu then incarnated as Vamana, a Brahmin avatar, and requested land from Bali that would cover three of his strides.
Once Bali agreed to honour this request, Vishnu transformed into a colossal form, also known as Trivikrama. His first stride covered the earth and his second stride encompassed the heavens. Upon realising the true nature of the Brahmin before him, Bali requested that Vishnu’s third step be placed on his own head. Thus, Bali’s surrender to Vishnu marked the restoration of the old order. Bali Pratipada therefore, celebrates the victory of Vamana over Bali.
The Return of Ram
Ram’s return to Ayodhya following his fourteen year exile is one of the most well known traditions linking the Ramayana—one of India’s most revered epics—to Diwali.
Ram, the human incarnation of Vishnu, was all set to be crowned the King of Kosala following his father, King Dasharatha’s reign. In a twist of fate though, one of his stepmothers, Kaikeyi, wanting the best for her son Bharat, demands that he be banished for fourteen years. King Dasharatha is left helpless since he had granted Kaikeyi a boon and had to honour his promise. Ram along with his brother, Lakshman, and wife, Sita, accept her wishes and proceed to the forest where they live out their exile.
These textile labels depict the vanvas of Ram, Sita and Lakshman: the journey at the start of their exile and their life in the forest.
During the course of their vanvas, Sita is abducted by Ravan, the king of Lanka, who represents the archetypal villain.
This textile label depicts the abduction of Sita, seen by the threshold here and protected by the Lakshman rekha, even as the ten-headed and ten-armed Ravana attempts to lure her to step over it. Towards the top of the image, Ram and Lakshman are observed hunting the golden deer (a demon in disguise) that Sita had desired.
In a moment of quick-thinking, Sita leaves a trail of jewellery behind that allows Ram and Lakshman to trace her whereabouts. The journey to Lanka is a long and arduous one however, and only made possible with the help of the monkey gods. A large bridge is built connecting Pamban island in Tamil Nadu to the shores of Lanka. With the help of Hanuman and the armies of Sugriva, Ram is able to defeat Ravana, reflecting the triumph of good over evil that Diwali is synonymous with. In this context, the celebrations of Diwali honour Ram’s return from exile to the kingdom of Ayodhya. The city of Ayodhya welcomes Ram, Sita and Lakshman with open arms and by lighting lamps, a tradition that continues to date.
There is no singular story that defines why Diwali is celebrated. When journeying through its customs and rituals, one realises just how diverse and varied its festivities are. However, despite these geographical differences in traditions, the general sentiment of the triumph of good over evil serves as the basis for celebrations across the country.
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McDermott, Rachel Fell. “Approaches to Kālī Pūjā in Bengal.” Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal, Columbia University Press, 2011, pp. 183–96. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/mcde12918.14.