Intangible Heritage

Lighting up the Night

watercolor by Sushmita Maity
watercolor by Sushmita Maity

Diwa­li or Dee­pa­va­li, is the Fes­ti­val of Lights. Or, more noti­cea­bly, the Fes­ti­val of Cra­ckers. Fire cra­ckers. Offi­cial­ly, the Hin­du holi­day cele­bra­tes the trium­ph of good over evil, and the des­truc­tion of a 10-hea­ded demon, Rava­na, by Lord Rama. In the U.S., my home coun­try, if we learn about Diwa­li at all, it is often equa­ted to Christ­mas, most pro­ba­bly becau­se it usual­ly falls clo­se to or during the Anglo-Ame­ri­can “Holi­day Sea­son.” The cele­bra­tions didn’t seem too much like Christ­mas to me, as the fire cra­ckers tend to over­po­wer most other aspects of the holi­day, giving it more of a fee­ling like Four­th of July.

I was told by some locals, howe­ver, that the­re see­med to be less cra­ckers this year. It didn’t seem qui­te as noi­sy. Per­haps this is becau­se of the fair­ly strong envi­ron­men­tal move­ment to limit the use of cra­ckers whi­ch add smo­ke pol­lu­tion to the air, was­te pol­lu­tion to the ground and sound pol­lu­tion to the city. Peo­ple light cra­ckers without safe­ty pre­cau­tions, bur­ning their hands and feet, whi­le pets and unsus­pec­ting birds often get caught in the cross­fi­re. At the school that I work at, the­re was a dra­wing com­pe­ti­tion to crea­te a pos­ter with the the­me “Color­ful Diwa­li Without Cra­ckers.” Here, stu­dents depic­ted other ele­ments of the fes­ti­val. A few drew the sto­ry of Rama and the Rava­na, but many focu­sed on the tra­di­tio­nal oil lamp, the diya – ligh­ting the lamps and cand­les to spread the light of the fes­ti­val, spen­ding time with fami­ly and loved ones and giving to tho­se in need. (Here we can see the simi­la­ri­ties to Christ­mas, and also of cour­se to Hanuk­kah, ano­ther Fes­ti­val of Light whi­ch also gets grou­ped in the “Christ­mas of other reli­gions” cur­ri­cu­lum.) Some real­ly love­ly stu­dent-drawn pos­ters sho­wed the fla­me of the oil lamp bloo­ming into a tree, empha­si­zing the envi­ron­men­tal the­mes of the move­ment. Indeed, I did hear from seve­ral peo­ple that they cho­se not to burst cra­ckers this year.

Diwa­li also marks the start of a new per­iod in one’s life. It is consi­de­red an aus­pi­cious time to take up new things, like a new job or new school. This is also mar­ked by the pur­cha­se of a new out­fit, the “Diwa­li dress.” Most eve­ryo­ne who cele­bra­tes Diwa­li will wear new clo­thes pur­cha­sed for the occa­sion. Many shops have fla­sh sales and in the days lea­ding up to Diwa­li, and in Pon­di­cher­ry, the main com­mer­cial streets were packed with peo­ple going by foot, cycle or motor­bi­ke to do their Diwa­li shop­ping.

Ano­ther impor­tant part of the cele­bra­tions are, of cour­se, the sweets. Ladoo, milk cake, gulab jamun, muruk­ku and sco­res of other sweets who­se names I don’t know. We might equa­te this to the “Sea­son of Giving,” as sweets are exchan­ged with neigh­bors, fami­ly and friends. This year Diwa­li fell on the same wee­kend as Hal­lo­ween, whi­ch I also cele­bra­ted with gus­to, so it was essen­tial­ly a sugar-rushed too­th-decaying cou­ple of days.

The tra­di­tio­nal Tamil cele­bra­tion of Diwa­li begins ear­ly in the mor­ning as Hin­dus go to tem­ple to pray, give thanks and wor­ship Lord Rama and other patron dei­ties. The food for the mor­ning meal is pla­ced befo­re an altar of cand­les and idols of the gods to be bles­sed in the ritual known as puja, whi­ch is care­ful­ly plan­ned to take pla­ce during aus­pi­cious hours of the mor­ning. The head of the hou­se­hold rings a small tink­ling bell to mark the start of puja and moves an oil lamp in cir­cles at the altar befo­re offe­ring the fla­me to each fami­ly mem­ber. They wave their hands over the fla­me and wash the heat and light over their heads. Tamil prayers are reci­ted and tho­se of us non-Hin­dus in atten­dan­ce were encou­ra­ged to make any wish we hoped would come true. After puja, the fami­ly eats the mor­ning meal, a feast consis­ting of tra­di­tio­nal break­fast foods like dosai, vada and idly, as well as some rice with rasam or sam­bar and non-vege­ta­rian gra­vies with chi­cken, mut­ton or fish. All is ser­ved on the tra­di­tio­nal bana­na leaf and is fol­lo­wed by Diwa­li sweets.

After the meal, peo­ple take to the streets to burst the mor­ning round of cra­ckers. Most of the­se are just noi­se­ma­kers as the glo­wing spark­ling ones are reser­ved for night­ti­me. Constant pop­ping and explo­sions are heard throu­ghout the day. The one sure pre­cau­tion for safe­ty is the long char­coal sti­ck that is used to light the cra­ckers. This allows you an extra meter or so of a head start as you scam­per to the other side of the street to bra­ce your­self for the small but loud explo­sion. In the mean­ti­me and throu­ghout the day, friends, fami­ly and neigh­bors will visit each other and exchan­ge bags, boxes or trays lined with bana­na lea­ves bea­ring tra­di­tio­nal Diwa­li sweets. One beau­ti­ful thing about Pon­di­cher­ry is that local Tamil tra­di­tions often col­li­de and com­bi­ne with Fren­ch or other Wes­tern expat influen­ces. The boxes of Ame­ri­can Junior Mints that I took to my Diwa­li hosts were bles­sed during puja and then found their way onto the tray of tra­di­tio­nal sweets that was dis­tri­bu­ted among the neigh­bors.

But even the cele­bra­tions of Diwa­li could not break the dai­ly rhythm of Pon­di­cher­ry. The mid-after­noon lull that nor­mal­ly occurs as peo­ple slink to their cou­ches and beds to take naps after lun­ch still brought a quiet break during the day of cra­ckers. And whi­le the cele­bra­tions picked up again in the eve­ning, this time with full form fire­works or “outs” being shot from the midd­le of busy streets and from roof­tops, the skies and the streets of this small town were pret­ty much quiet by 11pm. Unless of cour­se, you mana­ged to find a group of forei­gners or Nor­thern Indians (who typi­cal­ly cele­bra­te Diwa­li with much more enthu­siasm than sou­ther­ners) – nei­ther of whi­ch are at all uncom­mon in this cos­mo­po­li­tan oasis – who took full advan­ta­ge of the fes­ti­val (and Pondicherry’s famous­ly low alco­hol pri­ces) until the ear­ly hours of the mor­ning. After all, this is a pla­ce whe­re Tamil cultu­re and expat cultu­re meet, a pla­ce whe­re peo­ple can expe­rien­ce both and choo­se aspects from either and make them their own. So whe­ther cele­bra­ted with cand­les, cra­ckers, lan­terns or strin­ged-lights, Diwa­li lit up the town.

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