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Saturday November 6, 2010

Celebrating Deepavali in India

Malaysian Hindus celebrated Deepavali with open houses and merry-making yesterday, but how do Hindus in India celebrate?

Hindus all over the world celebrated the Festival of Light yesterday with new clothes, fireworks, oil lamps and hearty meals.

While retaining much of the cultural and religious rituals of their forefathers in India, the Malaysian Hindu community has also kept up with modern times by simplifying some of the customs. Still, Deepavali (or Diwali in India) is a time of deep religious significance and for strengthening family ties.

While Malaysians celebrate with the traditional open houses and merry-making, our Hindu counterparts in India have their own versions of the celebration. The villagers and town folks celebrate differently, as do the various Hindu castes and clans.

We look at how three families in India celebrate the joyous occasion.

One of the best parts of Deepavali is the delicacies such as muruku.


Most people from the west Indian state of Maharashtra celebrate Deepavali for four days, starting two days before the actual day. As with most festivals, Deepavali is a time when houses are cleaned and old things thrown away beforehand to usher in good luck.

The festival is marked by Dhanteras, a day to pray to the deity Dhanvantari (the incarnation of Vishnu) so that he may bestow financial wisdom on devotees. Dhanteras holds special significance for the business community due to customary purchases of precious metals on this day such as gold and silver.

Homemaker Surekharani Vedhakumar, 56, who lives in Pune, starts Dhanteras by taking an early morning bath using oil and uttan powder made of herbs.

“This powder removes impurities from the body. Then we let off fireworks to remove any negativity from the house before we conduct the prayer session in the evening. All ladies have to wear their jewellery for prosperity and light earthen lamps around the house.

“Some families turn off the lamp at midnight, but for me, I keep adding oil to the lamp so that it burns for four consecutive days. This signifies that no matter how difficult life is, there is always a way out of the darkness with this light,” she explains.

Surekharani also decorates the entrance of her house with traditional motifs of rangoli to welcome the goddess of wealth and prosperity. She changes the designs every day and makes them as colourful as possible.

Surekharani Vedhakumar doing a puja.

She says, ”It must not be white because Diwali is a joyous occasion and you want colour to enter your home and life.”

On day two, the Maharashtrans seek blessings from goddess Lakshmi by performing the Lakshmi puja. The preparations are similar to the first day but instead of wearing all the jewellery, they place gold and a broom in front of the deity.

“Yes, a broom,” she says, laughing. “That’s because we consider the broom a form of Lakshmi so we get blessings from it as well. We also offer sweets such as batasha (akin to butter biscuit) and puffed rice. Once the puja is over, we offer the sweets to guests who come to the house.”

On Diwali day, Surekharani starts the day early and buries all disagreements she may have with others. She subscribes to the motto that to forgive is divine.

“I like to start afresh and pray for harmony. This is also the day when wives will bathe their husbands, so I will give my husband an oil bath,” she says.

Once he’s showered, he puts on his new clothes and sits in front of the deity. Surekharani then prays to him, sprinkles rice over him, puts kum kum on his forehead and places a sweet in his mouth.

One of the practices to cleanse oneself on Deepavali day is to have an oil bath and (below) Deepavali is a joyous occasion so you want your rangoli to be bright and colourful, so that your home and life are the same way. — ART CHEN & P. NATHAN/The Star

“It’s our ritual to do this. My husband gives me a gift and it’s usually cash. But husbands can give whatever they can afford, and it doesn’t have to be big. We also bless our children, and then sit down for breakfast. We observe vegetarianism during the four days. For visitors, we only serve them sweets, not a meal.”

Since two of Surekharani’s four children were abroad this year, the festivities were toned down a little. As with previous years, Surekharani visited her mother and relatives, and vice versa since they all live in the same compound.

Today on day four, Surekharani and her four sisters will be bathing their brothers in oil.

“We have one older brother and one younger brother so we’ll get blessings from the older brother while our younger brother will receive blessings from us. In return, he’ll probably give us a saree each,” says the grandmother of four.

Officially, Diwali is over by then, but in Maharashtra, the festival culminates in Tulsi Vivah, which is the ceremonial marriage of the tulsi (basil) plant and Vishnu, conducted by a priest. It occurs on the 16th day after Diwali or on the 11th or 12th lunar day.

Surekharani says, “I’m not sure how this came about but it is to protect the family. Only one married couple in the family sits in front of the plant and gets married again. My eldest brother is the one to do this.”

The Tulsi wedding also signifies the end of the monsoon and the beginning of the Hindu wedding season.


On the eve of Deepavali, the women in Rajendran Ratnam’s family do not sleep a wink. They are usually busy making all kinds of delicacies like idli (rice pancake) and muruku, grinding flour and preparing for this event.

“The kids go to bed by 11pm after playing fireworks but the adults continue to spruce up the house to get ready for the festival,” says Rajendran, 48, who hails from a village in Tanjavur, Tamil Nadu. The village has 2,000-odd families, and almost everyone knows each other.

Rajendran, a rice mill owner and tailor, comes from a family of eight siblings. Every year, all the brothers and their families will head to his mother’s house to help out. It is a boisterous day with relatives trading jokes and laughing to make the event memorable.

“We all look forward to this day. Even though we live in the same village, it’s not always easy to get everyone together. Those who are lucky manage to sleep but we all get up at 4am to play with firecrackers, bathe in oil, pray and wear new clothes.

“When I was a kid, my parents used to buy us new clothes a week ahead and every day, we’d stare at the clothes and long to wear them. We couldn’t wait to put them on! We couldn’t even taste any of the delicacies until it was offered to the deities first, but nowadays, we eat it before the day itself,” reveals Rajendran, who has a son, 15, and daughter, 12.

By 6am, the family is seated for breakfast and just after 7am, friends and extended relatives drop in for breakfast. Everyone who visits them walks out with Rs5 (35 sen) in their pocket. The money-giving custom is something the Ratnam family has practised for decades. Some of the family members also go to the Muniswaran Temple to offer vadai to the deity.

In the afternoon, goats are queued up on the street, waiting to be slaughtered. People sit around to watch this gory spectacle where the goats are hung on a line with a rope around their neck and killed before being chopped up.

He says, “This has always been our practice so we don’t consider it cruel. About 50 goats are sacrificed every Deepavali. The butcher cuts up the goats and sells them according to the amount that people want. Then we take the meat home, cook it and have it for lunch.”

After that, the family sits around drinking alcohol, chai or coffee, and indulges in some chit chat. The kids play fireworks and will continue until the supply is exhausted in a few days time. Not much is done beyond that.

“If you look in terms of significance, Ponggal is celebrated on a grander scale than Deepavali,” says Rajendran, adding that if there was a death in the family, Deepavali would not be celebrated. But, the following year, the festival would be celebrated five or seven days earlier and not on the day.

Chennai celebrations

For retired teacher Manimehala Deivasigamani, 66, Deepavali has been celebrated differently since she got married. Her in-laws practise different customs, which she has to adhere to.

For example, the family places importance on making athirasam, the Indian version of a doughnut made with rice flour and jaggery, for good luck and health. Great pains are taken during the preparatory stage of drying the ingredients and readying the mixture for frying.

“We dry the ingredients on a white cloth, and on Deepavali day, we place the mixture in a silver vessel and take it to the temple. Some people even count the number of athirasam made and it has to be in odd numbers. I don’t do that, though — it’s too troublesome.

“We also put some sweets inside this vessel (called nombu chatti) and place a few talisman which are purchased from a shop. Yellow is for girls and red for men. Once the priest is done blessing the vessel, we take it home and fry the athirasam for lunch,” says Manimehala.

Deepavali is not celebrated lavishly in the household, and only among family and close friends. Manimehala has three sons and two grandchildren so everyone heads home for the festival.

“On Diwali day, we get up, have an oil bath, pray, put on new clothes, eat from a banana leaf and go to the temple. The elders bless the youngsters by giving them ang pow, then welcome visitors to the house,” she says.

The talisman from the vessel is then handed out to close friends and family who can’t come to her house. They wear it for a year, then take it off and place it on a basil plant.

However, since Deepavali fell on a new moon day (amavasya), this year Manimehala observed the nombu and was a vegetarian, a practice her own family followed. Nombu is a Hindu ritual of fasting in which married women pray fo their husband’s well-being and longevity. It is also observed by daughters who have no fathers.

“After lunch, we’ll head to the theatre to watch a movie.” she says. “What else is there to do?”

Related Stories:
Indians going green on Deepavali
Fun, frolic & fanfare


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