How are you celebrating Deepavali this year? Of course, there will be new clothes to wear, friends and relatives to visit and good food too. But what about firecrackers? Will you or won't you contribute to the rising level of pollution?

Deepavali usually means a time to indulge: new clothes, good food and fireworks. But of late, what with pollution becoming such a big issue, the fireworks factor in Deepavali has been declining — slowly but steadily. While a radical few have banned fireworks from their homes; others tend to choose the ones that don't make too much noise.

Akila of The School-KFI, Chennai, is a radical. She is not buying any kind of crackers. So how will she celebrate the festival? “I'll give sweets to my neighbours and friends and also decorate the house with lamps,” she says. Her friend Anushka, on the other hand, cannot do without crackers but she has said no to bombs and rockets. “I'm sticking to flower pots and zameen chakkars and simple things like that,” she says.

Rajeev S, from Tambaram,, Chennai, however, is going the whole hog. “I'm going to get sparklers, flower pots, zameen chakkars, all the different kinds of bombs…,” he enumerates enthusiastically. And what about air, noise and land pollution? He shrugs, “It's only once a year.”

In the capital, Aditya of Meera Model School, says Deepavali is a community affair. “My friends and I gather, pool our fireworks and then have a blast. We're out the whole day having fun. And then of course there's the fun of new clothes, yummy food, lots of sweets...” Asked what kind of crackers, he responds, “All sorts... bombs, zameen chakkars, phool chaddis, sparklers, rockets... the works.” What about pollution? “I don't know,” he says. “Everyone here bursts lots of crackers.” Sankara Narayanan, of Sishugriha School, Bengaluru, has a different story to tell. “I get new clothes, lots of sweets and hang around the house the rest of the day.” Doing what? “Errm… nothing much. No crackers; my sister banned them three years ago… watch TV, play games…” he trails off

Myths and legends

While the most common reason given for the celebration is the return of Rama to Ayodhya after the 14-year vanavas, there are other stories associated with this festival. One, popular in South India, is Krishna's killing of Narakasura or alternatively Krishna helping his wife, Satyabama, to kill the asura. Yet another, celebrates the end of the Pandavas exile. And then there's Krishna lifting the Govardhan mountain to protect his people from the wrath of Indra.

In many parts of India, the festival falls at the end of the harvest season. As a result this time meant closing all accounts associated with the cycle of agriculture. With increasing urbanisation, this carried over to all businesses too. So Deepavali is a time when business people pray to Goddess Lakshmi for wealth and prosperity. There are two legends that link this festival to the goddess as well. According to one, Lakshmi emerged from the Kshirasagara (Ocean of Milk) during the Samudramanthan (Churning of the ocean). The second is connected to Vishnu's Vamana Avatar. The belief is that Vishnu returns to Vaikunta on this day, so Lakshmi is in a benevolent mood.

Each legend or myth commemorates the victory of good over evil but there is also a hidden meaning. Not for nothing is Deepavali known as Festival of lights. The diyas and lamps with which houses are lit up (of course today electric lights have taken over the job) also refer to the light of knowledge that dispels ignorance. The light of knowledge is said to awaken compassion and the awareness of the oneness of all people.

Did you know?

Deepavali has some significance for Jains and Sikhs too. Jains believe that this is the day that Mahavira attained nirvana in 527 B.C. For Sikhs, it commemorates Bandhi Chhor Diwas, the release of the sixth guru Hargobind Singh from the Mughal prison in 1619. The guru is also said to have rescued 52 kings who had been imprisoned by Emperor Jahangir.

The different days

The first day is Dhanteras, a new beginning for most businesses. Day two is Naraka Chaturdasi, the defeat of the evil Narakasura. In North India, the day is referred to as Choti Diwali. The third is devoted to worship of Lakshmi. The fourth is Govardhan Puja, commemorating Krishna's lifting the mountain. In the south, this is the day Bali entered his new kingdom after being defeated by Vishnu as Vamana. The last day is Bhai Dooj, which celebrates the ties between sisters and brothers.