The night is black,
Kindle the lamp of love with thy life and devotion.
Rabindranath Tagore on Diwali
Also known as the “festival of lights”, Diwali, or Deepavali, is a major Indian festival celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs across the globe. Homes and workplaces are decorated with lamps(deeps) to signify the victory of good over evil and the banishment of darkness.
The word “Diwali” is a derivative of the Sanskrit word “Deepavali”(it still goes by this name in the southern states of India) -- Deepa meaning light and Avali, meaning a row. Put together it signifies the row of lights which commemorated the homecoming of King Rama of Ayodhya after 14 years of exile in the forest. In the modern context though, the lights are interpreted as an invitation to Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity. Multi-coloured rangoli(floor drawings using rice flour) designs, floral decorations and fireworks lend grandeur to this festival which heralds joy, mirth and above of all, prosperity in the ensuing year.
The festival is spread over a period of 5 days each with its own significance and a medley of myths, legends and beliefs.
Day 1: Dhanteras or Dhanatrayodashi – This falls on the 13th day of the second half of the lunar month of Kartik. It is an auspicious day for shopping of gold and silver items as well as utensils. The entrance to homes are decorated with brightly-coloured motifs and lamps are kept burning through the night. “Lakshmi-puja” is performed in the evening and traditional bhajans are sung in praise of the goddess.
According to legend, the sixteen year old son of King Hima was doomed to die on the fourth day of his marriage. His young wife, though, had other plans and she kept him awake the entire night by telling him stories and singing songs. When the god of death, Yama, entered the chamber he was dazzled by the innumerable lamps that were burning brightly all over the room and reflecting off the heap of gold and silver ornaments placed at the entrance of the prince’s chambers as an obstacle. All night long he lay on the heap enchanted by the never ending stream of songs and stories emanating from the young maiden's mouth, forgetting why he had come. Once morning dawned, Yama slunk away sparing the youth's life. Thus the young wife saved her husband from the clutches of death.
Day 2: Naraka Chaturdashi or Chhota Diwali – Chaturdashi is the fourteenth day of the month on which the demon Narakasura was killed by Lord Krishna. Having defeated Lord Indra, Narakasura took off with the magnificent earrings of Aditi, the mother goddess and imprisoned sixteen thousand daughters of the gods and saints in his harem. On the day before Naraka Chaturdashi, Lord Krishna killed the demon king and liberated the imprisoned damsels and returned to Aditi her precious earrings. Upon his return from the battlefield the womenfolk massaged his body with scented oil and gave him a good bath to wash off the filth. This gave rise to the custom of taking a bath before sunrise on Naraka Chaturdashi. After the evening pujas, children burst crackers to herald the defeat of the demon but this is mostly on a small scale and more of an appetite whetter for the next day.
Day 3: Lakshmi Pujan or Chopada Puja – This is the most important day of the Diwali festival and is spent entirely worshipping the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi and the god of auspicious beginnings, Ganesha. It is believed that on this day the goddess walks through the green fields and by-lanes showering her blessings on man for plenty and prosperity. Once the sun sets and the ceremonial rites are over, home-made sweets are offered to the goddess as “naivedya” and distributed as “prasad”. Feasts are arranged in every house-hold and gifts exchanged amongst all as families go out to visit relatives, and to temples and fairs. On this day, the goddess Parvati played dice with her husband Lord Shiva and hence it is believed that whosoever gambles on Diwali will have prosperity throughout the ensuing year. To that effect, once the pujas are over and the feast indulged in, the little-ones are sent out with fire-crackers and sweets while the elders get together behind closed doors to gamble the night away.
Day 4: Govardhan Puja or Annakut – According to legend, the young Lord Krishna saved the people of Gokul from a terrible deluge unleashed by Lord Indira with the help of the Govardhan mountain using it as an umbrella to shield the town-folk from the incessant rain. As a tribute to this story, people build hillocks out of cowdung on this day, decorate them with flowers and worship them. The day is also observed as Annakut meaning “mountain of food”. In temples, over the country, the deities are bathed in milk and dressed in shining attires studded with precious stones. Varieties of sweets and dry-fruits are ceremoniously raised in the form of a mountain as “bhog” and the devotees take “prasad” from it.
Day 5: Bhaiduj or Bhaiteeka – This day is observed as a symbol of love between brothers and sisters. Brothers and sisters meet to express their love and affection for each other. Gifts are exchanged and meals shared. This pre-dates “Raksha Bandhan”, another brother-sister festival which is more widely celebrated.
Diwali on the whole is a festival with more social than religious connotations. It is a family-oriented festival where past enmities are laid to rest, people are re-united and blessings sought for the upcoming year.
Wikipedia : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diwali
The Story of Diwali : http://members.tripod.com/~jennifer_polan/diwali.html