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‘Leading Light’ festivals around the world
October 15, 2017, 2:53 pm

Diwali, or the Festival of Lights with all its religious, historical and social connotations, which began as an ancient harvest festival in India, has evolved to become one of the biggest and brightest celebrations in the country’s festival calendar.

A big part of the brightness aspect of the festival comes from the millions of glowing lights that decorate homes, buildings and streets during the celebration period, not to mention the dazzling colorful fireworks that light up the night skies. Though the small earthen oil lamps called diya that traditionally illuminated homes during Diwali have been replaced or bolstered in some places by colorful candles, lanterns,  neon lamps and stringed LED lights, bright glittering lights are an integral part of Diwali celebrations everywhere. 

Light is one of the most fundamental and universal of forces, symbolizing revival and life-bestowing energy. In many cultures and religions around the world, light is often the representation of divinity and godliness; it is seen as purifying, enlightening, protecting and illuminating, driving away the darkness of evil, ignorance, fear and despair.

Sun, the primordial form of light, and its more temporal form, fire, have been revered for centuries by various civilizations in different parts of the world. Fire, in particular, has been feared for its devastating capabilities, as well as adored for its warmth and light potentialities.
Ancient cultures learned to fear the natural forest fires and volcanic eruptions that disrupted and destroyed their homes and livelihood. Elsewhere, especially in cold climes, fire was seen as a source and solace to the cold and darkness of winter. Fire-themed celebrations that included bonfires and fireworks were often used to mark the winter and summer solstices that signaled the arrival of dark winter and the return of warm summer.

With so much significance attached to light, it is not surprising that all over the world people of different faiths and beliefs celebrate unique traditional festivals centered on the lighting of lamps, lanterns, candles or fires.

The ancient Zoroastrians, which includes present day Parsee and Irani communities in India and elsewhere, worship fire as the visible manifestation of Ahura Mazda, the eternal principle of light and righteousness. In the Jewish faith, Hanukkah or the Festival of Light is held each year in the Hebrew month of Kislev, which falls between late November and late December each year. The highlight of this eight-day festival is the lighting of the traditional nine-branched candelabrum, or menorah, on each day of the commemorations.

In the Christian religious calendar, the four weeks of Advent in the lead up to Christmas are marked by the pious decorating their homes and churches with bright lights, candles and shimmering stars symbolizing purity and the light of god. In many parts of Europe and Latin America, light or fire festivals are held to celebrate various religious, harvest or solstice events. The bonfires on Saint Martin’s Day in November  in many European towns and villages; the Lyon Festival of Light in France held in early December, and the five-day Fellas Festival in Valencia, Spain, which culminates in a massive fire and fireworks display in mid-March, are just some of the more popular light and fire themed festival around Europe.

In Asia, the Loy Krathong festival in Thailand, and similar festivals called Tazaungdaing in Myanmar and Bon Om Touk in Cambodia, is held on full moon night of 12th lunar month in the Thai calendar. The festival, which usually falls in November, witnesses large crowds of people gathering along river banks to float tiny decorated baskets filled with offerings. The boats that are lit with small candles are meant to venerate Lord Buddha, while the floating symbolizes letting go of one's jealousy, hatred and anger against others.

In China, the Spring Lantern Festival is a major event celebrated to mark the final day of the Chinese New Year celebrations. Falling on the fifteenth day of the first month in the Chinese calendar, which corresponds to specific day in February or March, the Lantern Festival celebrations see entire streets and squares become an ocean of colorful paper lanterns. Similar lantern festivals are held in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

In India, Diwali is the Festival of Lights and is held over a period of five days in the Hindu month of Karthik, which usually falls in the mid-October to mid-November period. During the festival, homes, streets, shops and offices are decorated with a multitude of lights and lamps symbolizing blessings and prosperity from omniscient divinities. The festival is also celebrated with great enthusiasm in Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Fiji, Mauritius, Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago, and wherever the Indian diaspora have spread.

The festivities begin two days before and continue two days after Diwali, which falls on the new moon night and heralds the first day of the month of Karthik. Each day of Diwali is associated with its own rituals and religious myths.

Dhanteras, a word coined from Sanskrit 'dhan' or wealth and 'teraas' or thirteenth, is the thirteenth day of the moon’s waning crescent in the Hindu calendar month of Ashwin. Dhanteras marks the start of Diwali festivities and is considered an auspicious day for making purchases. On this day special offerings are made to the gods and goddesses of wealth and prosperity.

Naraka Chaturdashi, is the second day of the festival and represents the victory of Lord Rama over the demon Naraka on the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight of the month of Aswin. Generally, house decoration and the colorful floor pattern drawings called rangoli are made on or before this day. Women and girls decorate their hands with henna designs and prepare the sweets and other delicacies ahead of Diwali.

Diwali, on the third day of the five-day festival is usually celebrated as the main festive day. People don their new clothes, diyas are lit and special pujas are offered to the Goddess Lakshmi. Windows and doors are left open to provide easy access for the Goddess.  After the puja, people go out and celebrate by bursting fire-crackers. Visits to friends and relatives and exchange of gifts and sweets also take place on this day. Among some business communities, new account books for the year ahead are opened on this day.

Govardhan Puja is celebrated a day after Diwali, and commemorates the feat of Lord Krishna in lifting the Govardhan mountain to provide villagers in Vrindavan shelter from torrential rains. The day symbolizes God’s protection of devotees and is celebrated with great enthusiasm in many North Indian states, including Haryana, Punjab, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In Maharashtra is it observed as 'Padwa' and there is a tradition of gifting presents to wives by men.

Bhai Dooj, which marks the end of Diwali festivities, celebrates the strong relationship and bonds of love between sisters and brothers. The day ritually emphasizes the love and lifelong bond between siblings, and is a day when women and girls get together to perform a puja with prayers for the well-being of their brothers. The whole family then joins together to share food and exchange greetings and gifts.

The lights of Diwali and the entire celebrations are meant to represent the rekindling of our inner light of knowledge that dispels the darkness of ignorance and arrogance, helping clarify our minds towards the true nature and reality of immanence. The lights of Diwali symbolize revival, hope, success, knowledge and prosperity, and reinforce our faith in these virtues of life.


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