Arriving in India ten days before Diwali, I was full of curiosity and anticipation. A country known for its colourful celebrations would surely put on a show for the biggest festival of the year. It did not disappoint, although it did surprise.
Diwali is the Festival of Lights. It is a five day festival, with the main celebrations on the evening of the new moon during the Hindu month of Kartik. It commemorates the victory of light over darkness, good over evil.
“I was told how people open their doors and light their homes with clay oil lamps named diya, and decorate their doorways with rangoli, floor patterns created with coloured sand, rice and petals.”
In the days leading up to the festival, I asked locals about its significance and their personal celebrations. Many people told me about Laxmi, the Hindu Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity. I was told how people open their doors and light their homes with clay oil lamps named diya, and decorate their doorways with rangoli, floor patterns created with coloured sand, rice and petals. The decorations are said to welcome Goddess Laxmi who will bless their homes with good fortune. Others told me of their family meals, the food and sweets shared, about the grand display of fireworks and the modern tradition of firecrackers.
On the day of the Diwali I was in Shimla, set in the foothills of the Himalayas. While on a day hike, a local guide expressed his relief to be out of the city and away from the fumes of firecrackers. He shared his frustration with the pollution of recent years; a result of lavish firework displays in densely populated areas.
This was something I was already familiar with from my time in Delhi. Last Diwali, the air in the city was so thick with smoke from firecrackers that schools were closed the smog finally lifted—seven days after the festival. An article in the local paper titled ‘The Right to Breathe’, outlined the Supreme Court’s push for a ban on firecrackers. In anticipation of the celebrations to come that evening, my feelings were mixed.
“Street sellers decorated their stalls with lights and jasmine flowers, alleyways were illuminated with fairy lights and people danced between the flickering flames of sparklers.”
As we drove back into the town, passing cars stopped to bid us a happy Diwali. People were hospitable and full of energy. Once the sun set, I wandered through the town. There were fireworks in every direction: from the streets, balconies, building sites. People cheered in sync with the blasts of fireworks and a group of children lit hundreds of diya. Street sellers decorated their stalls with lights and jasmine flowers, alleyways were illuminated with fairy lights and people danced between the flickering flames of sparklers.
During these five days, as I looked around, I was mesmerised with the beauty and charm of Diwali. But knowing the deeper issues of pollution, I understood the need for new restrictions. While the country works out how Diwali can have a brighter future with less impact, I will remember the joy and laughter on the streets shining through the smoke.