A Kaleidoscope of Deepavali Celebrations Across Cultures

A Kaleidoscope of Deepavali Celebrations Across Cultures
November 11, 2020

Known as the Festival of Lights, Deepavali is a celebration that symbolises the victory of good over evil, light over dark and knowledge over ignorance. While it originated in India and began with the Hindu religion, Deepavali has evolved to become a key event across Indian subcultures and throughout the South Asian diaspora, adopted by various ethnic, regional and religious groups, including here in Malaysia. Today, the festival marks the coming together of various communities in a celebration of diversity.


Triumph of Good vs Evil

For Hindus with origins from the North of India like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, the religious significance of Deepavali, or Diwali, as it is known amongst Northern Indians, is associated with the epic of Ramayana, which depicted the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya with wife Sita and brother Laxman after defeating the evil King Raavana after living in exile for 14 years. To light their way home, the people of Ayodhya festooned the entire kingdom with diyas (little clay lamps) and fireworks, and commemorated the occasion with revelry and the bursting of crackers.

Today, celebrants continue to decorate their homes with diyas while buildings and streets are illuminated with colourful lanterns and decorations.

“One of the most unique Diwali traditions for us is putting a silver coin in a tumbler of milk, which is then sprinkled in all the rooms for good luck,” says Tejasvi Sahni.

“We also buy gifts for our friends and family, which will traditionally include sweets and seasonal goods,” adds the Finance Manager who hails from Uttar Pradesh and now resides in Kuala Lumpur.  

Deepavali for South Indians, on the other hand, is focused on Lord Krishna. Naraka Chaturdashi is celebrated as the main day of Deepavali, said to be the day when Lord Krishna defeated powerful evil King Narakasura. Devotees begin their rituals on the eve of Naraka Chaturdashi by cleaning their homes and preparing the home to receive friends and family. 

For Cheras-born data analyst, Arvin Regavan, Deepavali is a deeply personal and spiritual affair: “We get up before sunrise to take the ritual oil bath to remove impurities from our bodies. And we get dressed in our new clothes before heading to the temple.

“It’s also quite fun with great food and sweets throughout the day.”

Deepavali as celebrated by Sri Lankan Tamils, follows similar traditions to their Southern Indian counterparts. However, Deepavali by Sri Lankans is also seen as a ritual to manifest prosperity by praying to Goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu deity associated with wealth and prosperity.

The devotees wash their homes and decorate them with kolam, an intricate drawing made on the flour using dyed rice flour or chalk. It is made to welcome the Goddess Lakshmi on her walks through the earth during the celebrations.

Creating the painstakingly beautiful kolam, also known as rangoli, is a ritual found among other Indian subcultures too, and is often used to decorate Malaysian shopping malls during the festive Deepavali season.  


Courage and enlightenment

The Festival of Light is also celebrated by adherents of other religions. In Jainism, it honours the anniversary of Lord Mahavir’s attainment of moksha, or freedom from the cycle of reincarnation. For believers, the occasion underscores Lord Mahavir’s teachings of compassion, justice and non-violence.

Each year, Jains light lamps to symbolise keeping the light of Lord Mahavir’s knowledge alive while sweets are distributed in recognition of his contributions. Many Jains also fast, sing hymns and chant mantras to honour Lord Mahavir, while others participate in charity and philanthropy.

For those who follow Sikhism, Deepavali is known as Bandi Chhorh Divas, or ‘Prisoner Release Day’. It celebrates the release of the Sikh Guru, Hargobind, from prison, along with 52 others in 1619. During Bandi Chhorh Divas, devotees attend Sikh temples for a day of prayer and meditation. Sikhs may also choose to make a pilgrimage to the Golden Temple, Sri Harmandir Sahib, in India, which is the most important pilgrimage site in the religion.

For teacher Hardev Singh, the celebrations in Malaysia is somewhat unique, as they get to focus on their spiritual activities while also joining in the festivities with their Hindu brethren.

“We usually start the morning by participating in Akhand Paath, a ritual consisting of the continuous reading of the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib. However, later in the day, going for open houses and visiting our Hindu friends to share a meal have also become commonplace,” Hardev shares.