The Oldest of Indian Festivals

The soft spreading glow of oil lamps… the excitement of wearing new clothes after an oil bath given by one’s affectionate mother… gorging on sweets till one was sick… the hoard of firecrackers waiting to be torn to shreds and go up in smoke.

That was and is Deepavali or Diwali. Vatsayana in his ‘Kama Sutra’ refers to this festival and that is the first reference available in Indian Literature. ‘Nagananda’, a play written in the 7{+t}{+h}century by King Harsa but ascribed to Bana, describes in detail the mode of celebration.. Made up of two simple Sanskrit words, the compound word Deepavali is ‘Deepa’ (light) and ‘Avali’ (a row), thereby meaning a row of lights. ‘Naraka Chathurthi’ is another name given to Deepavali.

According to the legend, a mighty demon by name Narakasura once assumed the shape of an elephant and ambled away snatching the daughter of Viswakarma, the architect of the Heavens. The victims of the demon appealed to Lord Vishnu. He descended on the earth as Sri Krishna to put an end to the atrocities of Naraka. The demon’s mother prayed to the Lord that her son’s death anniversary be observed with lights and fireworks. The wish was granted.

Kala-Ratri is yet another name for Deepavali. On this most dreaded of all the nights in a year, Goddess Kali with her tongue lolling out and a necklace of human skulls, and attended by evil spirits, is worshipped and appeased. This happens even today is some parts of North India.

To many people in the North, Deepavali is the day on which Sri Rama returned to Ayodhya. What is celebrated with illumination is Rama Rajya. In addition to illuminations, the worship of Goddess Lakshmi, also forms an essential part of the festivities.

Legend has it that the Devas and the Asuras joined hands, forgetting their eternal enmity, to churn the Milky Ocean. That they did with a great hope of getting nectar which would make them all immortal. In the process the ocean yielded many valuable things. Among them was Lakshmi who was later married to Lord Vishnu. To Mumbayites, Deepavali signifies the birthday of Goddess Lakshmi. And on this day special poojas are offered not only to the Goddess but also to the wealth She had brought with her into the family.

Legends galore apart, an historical event too is connected with Deepavali. King Vikramaditya, who ruled the Northern part of India in the third century, made the invading Huns run for their lives. Historians assert that that day was the dawn of a new era, known as Vikrama Era. It is believed that the people celebrate the king’s victory in that war by lighting lamps and firing crackers.

Celebrated as a great festival during the reign of Vijayanagar rulers, its mode of celebration was more or less the same as is in vogue today. Kalahasti temple in Andhra Pradesh and Sarangapani temple in Kumbakonam have in their abode inscriptions that speak of palaces decorated with gold plates and pearls and illuminated in large scale. Decorated elephants welcomed the public to the palace to witness the special entertainments. The kings for their part gifted lands as their offering to the temples.

According to King Vikrama Era, Deepavali marks the beginning of a new year. The merchant community of Gujarat and Maharashtra worship their account books, open new ledgers, and enter into contracts for business transactions. For Bengalis, Deepavali is Kali – Pooja. A story goes that ‘Kali’ was one of the seven tongues of ‘Agni’, God of fire. The festival is thus attributed to the prevalence of fire-worship which dominates religious worship among all primitive people.

This festival of lights plays a special role in the life of Sikhs. On Deepavali day, the golden Temple at Amritsar is lit brilliantly and thousands of Sikhs visit Amritsar to take a holy dip at Darbar Sahib Tank.

Children of Maharashtra celebrate Deepavali in a different style. Sweets, crackers and new clothes apart, they build mud forts to honor their warrior king Shivaji. The king is said to have chosen every Deepavali day for his expedition to capture forts.

The Jains celebrated Deepavali for an altogether different purpose. To them it is the death anniversary of Lord Mahavir, the Founder of Jainism. On this day he discarded his physical body and attained ‘Nirvana’. Among those present in the cremation site were the eighteen confederated kings. It was they who initiated the idea of illuminating on this day, saying: “The light of holy knowledge is gone. Therefore let us make a material illumination.”


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