Commonly known as the Festival of Lights, the celebration of Deepavali (or Diwali) marks the triumph of good over evil, the victory of light over dark.
Gazetted by the Government as a one-day public holiday, it is celebrated here in Malaysia by the Hindu community – mainly consisting those of Indian ethnic origin – during the seventh month of the Hindu lunar calendar, which usually falls in either October or November.
And it is not called the Festival of Lights for nothing, for it is celebrated with a joyful vivacity, with bright lights and even brighter smiles, as though to underline the traditional meaning and message behind it. Even the word “Deepavali” is etymologically derived from the Sanskrit word that literally means “row of lights”.
Let there be light
Deepavali owes its origins to the epic stories narrated in the Hindu religious scriptures.
Perhaps the most popular origin story is recounted in the Ramayana in which Lord Rama reunites with his wife Sita following a 14-year exile, and after having killed the demon king Ravana.
In the epic tale, the denizens of the kingdom of Ayodhya celebrated the prince’s triumphant return to his homeland and later, his ascension to the throne, by lighting up their homes and the streets with earthen oil lamps.
This happened on the night of the new moon and is commemorated hence, as the celebration of Deepavali. However, the story of Lord Rama’s victory over Ravana is only one out of many that is said to have given rise to this annual celebration.
One other popular tale remembered during the occasion is that of the battle between Lord Krishna and the evil asura (demon) Narakasura. Krishna emerged victorious after a long and drawn-out struggle, and his victory was celebrated with the lighting of lamps.
Yet others believe that Deepavali marks the day when the prideful and evil Mahishasura was vanquished at the hands of the goddess Kali.
Variations notwithstanding, these stories share a common thread; that of the removal of evil, to be replaced by that which is good.
This sense of renewal is reflected in the way Hindus prepare themselves for Deepavali.
In anticipation of the celebration, homes as well as their surrounding areas are cleaned from top to bottom; decorative designs such as the kolam are drawn or placed on floors and walls; and the glow of lights, whether emitted from the traditional vilakku (oil lamps fashioned out of clay) or colourful electric bulbs, brighten up the abode of both rich and poor, signalling the coming festivities.
Temples are similarly spruced up with flowers and offerings of fruits and coconut milk from devotees, becoming more abundant and pronounced as the big day draws closer.
The spring cleaning and decorating are significant for they not only symbolise renewal but also prepare for the welcoming of Devi Lakshmi, the goddess of Wealth and Prosperity, who is believed to visit homes and temples on the day. It is said she emerged from the churning ocean only days after the new moon of Deepavali.
Besides the cleaning of homes and temples, Hindus also prepare themselves by cleansing their bodies and minds. Many among the devout fast, or observe a strict vegetarian diet, and spend hours during the preceding weeks in prayer and meditation.
The eve is usually spent making last-minute preparations for the next day. This is also the time when past quarrels are forgotten, and forgiveness is extended and granted.
On Deepavali morning, many Hindu devotees awaken before sunrise for the ritual oil bath. For some it is a symbolic affair (to signify purity) while others take full oil baths to remove impurities externally, as well as tone the muscles and nerves to receive positive energies. Then it’s straight to the temples where prayers are held in accordance with the ceremonial rites.
The rest of the day is taken up by receiving guests, as is customary here in Malaysia. Most devout Hindus tend to be vegetarian, but that doesn’t change the fact that Deepavali is the day to savour the many delicious Indian delicacies such as sweetmeats, rice puddings and the ever-popular murukku.