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.