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Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is the most popular of all the festivals from South Asia, and is also the occasion for celebrations by Jains and Sikhs as well as Hindus.
The festival of Diwali extends over five days. Because of the lights, fireworks, and sweets involved, it's a great favourite with children.
The festival celebrates the victory of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance, although the actual legends that go with the festival are different in different parts of India.
In a recent editorial, the Times of India summed up the modern meaning of Diwali:
"Regardless of the mythological explanation one prefers, what the festival of lights really stands for today is a reaffirmation of hope, a renewed commitment to friendship and goodwill, and a religiously sanctioned celebration of the simple — and some not so simple — joys of life."
In Britain, as in India, the festival is a time for thoroughly spring-cleaning the home and for wearing new clothes and most importantly, decorating buildings with fancy lights.
The British city of Leicester is noted for its Diwali celebrations.
The date of Diwali is set by the Hindu calendar and so it varies in the Western calendar. It usually falls in October or November.
Diwali is a New Year festival in the Vikrama calendar, where it falls on the night of the new moon in the month of Kartika.
Business people regard it as a favourable day to start a new accounting year because of the festival's association with the goddess of wealth.
Diwali is also used to celebrate a successful harvest.
Sikhs and Jains
Diwali is also a Sikh festival. It particularly celebrates the the release from prison of the sixth guru, Hargobind Singh in 1619. However Sikhs had celebrated it before that, and the foundation stone of the Golden Temple at Amritsar, the holiest place in the Sikh world, was laid on Diwali in 1588.
Jains celebrate the attaining of Moksha (Nirvana, or eternal bliss) by the founder of Jainism, Lord Mahavira.
Row of Lights
The name of the festival comes from the Sanskrit word dipavali, meaning row of lights.
Diwali is known as the 'festival of lights' because houses, shops, and public places are decorated with small earthenware oil lamps called Diyas. These lamps, which are traditionally fueled by mustard oil, are placed in rows in windows, doors and outside buildings to decorate them.
The lamps are lit to help the goddess Lakshmi find her way into people's homes. They also celebrate the return of Rama and Sita to Rama's kingdom of Ayodhya after fourteen years of exile.
In towns (and in Britain) electric lights are often used in Diwali displays.
In India oil lamps are often floated across the river Ganges - it is regarded as a good omen if the lamp manages to get all the way across.
Fireworks are also a big part of the Diwali celebrations, although in recent years there has been a move against them because of noise and atmospheric pollution and the number of accidental deaths and injuries.
Two Goddesses in particular are celebrated at Diwali: Lakshmi and Kali.
Wealth and Prosperity
For many Indians the festival honours Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.
People start the new business year at Diwali, and some Hindus will say prayers to the goddess for a successful year.
Some people build a small altar to the goddess and decorate it with money and with pictures of the rewards of wealth, such as cars and houses.
Hindus will leave the windows and doors of their houses open so that Lakshmi can come in. Rangoli are drawn on the floors - rangoli are patterns and the most popular subject is the lotus flower. This because images of Lakshmi traditionally show her either holding a lotus or sitting on one.
There is much feasting and celebration, and the Diwali lamps are regarded as making it easy for Lakshmi to find her way to favoured houses.
The downside of the festival is that many Indians see it as an occasion to gamble. This comes from a legend that the that goddess Parvati played dice with her husband on this day and she said that anyone who gambled on Diwali night would do well.
Like Christmas in the West, Diwali is very much a time for buying and exchanging gifts.
Traditionally sweets and dried fruit were very common gifts to exchange, but the festival has become a time for serious shopping, leading to anxiety that commercialism is eroding the spiritual side of the festival.
In most years shopkeepers expect sales to rise substantially in the weeks before the festival.
Diwali is also a traditional time to redecorate homes and buy new clothes.
The goddess Kali is celebrated at Diwali in the Bengali and Oriya areas of India
Information taken from BBC website
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