Hindu mythology, traditional meals, and gifts are all part of the celebration.

By Caroline Biggs
October 26, 2020
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Mother and daughters tasting Indian sweet laddoos
Credit: Mayur Kakade / Getty Images

Commonly known as the Festival of Lights, Diwali (pronounced "de-VAH-lee") is a five-day festival celebrated by more than a billion people across the globe. "Diwali is a grand festival observed by Indian communities around the world and it is an official holiday in about a dozen countries," says Priyanka Guha, a Senior Manager in Client Services at Cartus. "The origin of the word 'Diwali' is from the Sanskrit word 'Deepavali' where 'deepa' means 'light' and 'vali' means 'row'; thus a row of lights, which is exactly what is seen in homes during this time—rows of light in celebration of the festival."

While the significance of Diwali, and the way it's celebrated, can differ greatly depending on the region, blogger Puneeta Chhitwal-Varma of Maple and Marigold says the essence of the festival remains the same no matter where you live. "Diwali is about celebrating life, all of its goodness, and the triumph of hope and light over darkness and despair."

Interested in learning more about the world-famous Festival of Lights? We asked Guha and Chhitwal-Varma what we should know about the popular celebration and this is what they had to say.

Diwali is literally all about light.

Celebrated during the Hindu Lunisolar month Kartika, Chhitwal-Varma says that Diwali usually falls between October and November on Amavasya, a moonless night. "Diwali takes place on a no-moon night, where the darkness is dispelled by row upon row of lamps that brighten up homes, inside and out, and light up streets in every village, town and city in India and beyond," she explains. Along with actually brightening up the celebration, Guha says that the lamps that are lit during Diwali have a symbolic meaning, too. "The lamps are also a metaphor for knowledge and consciousness that can drive away the ignorance within."

It's also about celebrating friends and family.

While Diwali is centered around lights, Guha says there a plethora of different rituals and traditions associated with the event. "It could also be called festival of sweets, gifts, fireworks, and family," she says. "Women often dress up in colorful clothing during the festival, homes are decorated in garlands and crackers, local bazaars offer an array of designer clay diyas, earthen lamps, and lanterns, and traditional Indian sweets are exchanged as gifts when families and friends come together to celebrate."

There are different traditions for each day of Diwali.

According to our experts, each day of the five-day Diwali comes with a different set of traditions. "The first day (called Dhanteras) begins with cleaning the house and then heading out to buy a metal item to be used at home," says Chhitwal-Varma. "While day two (Naraka Chaturdashi) is spent cooking and making beautiful trays to exchange with friends and family." The third day, known as Lakshmi Puja, is the main Diwali event. "While in the leadup to the festival the celebrations are big and loud with friends and extended family, the actual day of Diwali is celebrated at home often with fewer people," Chhitwal-Varma says. "Day four (Govardhan Puja) rings in the Hindu New Year and the festival concludes on the fifth day (Bhai Duj) which is a celebration of the bond between brothers and sisters."

Diwali has religious roots.

Guha says Diwali is associated with the legend of the Hindu god, Lord Ram, and the story of his return to his kingdom Ayodhya, after 14 years in exile. "The demon king Ravana of Lanka abducted Lord Ram's wife Sita, only to invite his own death as a result," she explains. "Lord Ram along with his brother Lakshman and an army of monkeys defeated and killed Ravana, and returned to his kingdom with Sita. According to mythology, the people of Ayodhya lit up clay lamps (known as diyas) to welcome him on his return from exile. The day Lord Rama won the battle against Ravana is celebrated as Dussera and the day he returned to Ayodhya, after 14 years of exile is celebrated as Diwali."

Diwali means different things to different people.

Chhitwal-Varma says that in India, where the festival originated, the cuisine, attire, language, geography and traditions vary greatly from region to region. "Every community has a different story to share about the cultural significance of Diwali," she explains. "Some people celebrate Diwali to mark the triumphant homecoming of Ram, a widely worshipped Hindu God. Others celebrate Diwali to welcome Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth, prosperity, and good fortune into their homes. Yet for others, it signifies the start of a new year. Whatever the story, the spirit of this five-day festival remains the same. It's a time to gather with friends and family, cook traditional meals, and celebrate new beginnings."

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