Diwali – Celebrating the Festival of Lights

In the United Kingdom, you can see the onset of the changing season with the changes in the environment – colours of leaves on shrubs and trees, falling leaves, perennial shrubs with winter berries, and the drying and withering of the summer blooms and greenery. As those autumnal weather and winds come in October, it signals the end of summer but there are a few celebrations that I like that make me optimistic for the new colder and darker seasons. It is the time of year that I can look forward to celebrating Diwali at home, in my small way.

Diwali may be spelt in English differently as Divali or Deepawali, but in essence it is the Festival of Lights that has been celebrated in India for thousand of years. As a child in Trinidad, Diwali was one of the highlights of the year and usually occurs in late October or early November. It is one of Indian Hindu traditional festivals that is still practised to this day in Trinidad by East Indian migrants.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, there was a slow build up to Diwali by local community groups, businesses and other official celebrations in temples and fairs. In our village, the villagers used to plan weeks in advance to cut bamboo rods from local forests. The giant bamboo rods were split for their natural groves, which were then used to rest and decorated lit deeyas (clay pots). The bamboos were cut and shaped in various artistic ways, and in arches that ran along the streets. The deeyas were light with oil and cotton wicks, then set alight at approximately 18:00 hours when the sun was setting at this time of year. It is also believed that the Goddess Lakshmi enters homes at that time with her light.

ravi_varma-lakshmi
Goddess Lakshmi

Diwali is allegedly a traditional held on one of the “darkest night of the year”. Growing up in Trinidad – our streets would be cleaned, swept, weeded, pavement white-washed and homemade paper buntings would be placed from one end of the street to the other. Our street also had a musical stage and entertainment at one end including prizes sponsored by local business for various categories such as a Diwali Queen. I am not sure if our street started the Diwali ‘streets’ celebration (I guess it was as we were the hip ones!) – however it was a tradition that was influential. Eventually most of the village’s streets were decorated with bamboo arches with lit deeyas. It was truly amazing to see and experience the beauty of the lights! There was immense energy with people in thousands walking along the streets. Seriously…there used to be traffic jams on our street with the sheer quantity of people walking and cars on the streets to see the Diwali lights. As a child, I used to love walking around the streets and meeting other neighbours, family and friends. They were extra-special times and the memories are for us to cherish!

Eventually most of the village’s streets were decorated with bamboo arches with lit deeyas. It was a truly amazing to see and experience the beauty of the lights! There was immense energy with people in thousands walking along the streets. Seriously…there used to be traffic jams on our street with the sheer quantity of people walking and cars on the streets to see the Diwali lights.  …on Diwali.

There would be visitors from neighbouring villages and towns, including my own relatives from Port-of-Spain would come to see the lights, as well as the lovely delicious vegetarian food that was prepared at home that day. It was also a time to invite friends who don’t normally celebrate Diwali. My parents would intentionally invite non-Hindus to partake of our hospitality. Personally, it is also a time for remembering and being grateful for what it means to have a home and a loving family. Probably the same warm feeling we have at Christmas, Eid or other religious or cultural occasions. This tradition continued for about 10 years in my village, and sadly I don’t think it happens now. I do know that there is a Diwali Nagar village at this time of year, which started decades ago just before I left Trinidad.

Diwali in the home usually meant a time to ‘spring clean’ the house, vegetables and sweets were prepared in advance, and any precious time was used to prepare for the activities for the day…and night. When I initially came to England, I missed home a lot due to this lifestyle, traditions and the many multicultural festivals we celebrated. It is a time that I remember family, especially my father and his unique Diwali traditions. They were extra special to me, and his way of doing things was one of the best examples of family values and homeliness.

There were parks and fields that also celebrated the festivals as fairs with displays of lights and entertainment with song, music and Indian dance. The radio frequently played Diwali songs. Companies and local communities used to host Diwali with live entertainment and food stalls with the beautifully designed bamboos in their various styles and shapes. Celebrations also included sparklers, firecrackers, fireworks and Bursting Bamboo (making loud noises with petrol, fire and bamboos which comes with a health and safety warning). These were usually held in fields and open spaces as they are too nowadays.

At a corporate Diwali celebration one year, I was unwillingly judged to be the Diwali Queen to my horror for the Caroni 1975 Ltd at Brechin Castle Diwali Celebrations! But on the positive side, I won a lovely sari and some money. I still like wearing a sari and Indian wear when possible – and Diwali is an ideal time to do so.

I was really pleased when the Trinidad and Tobago High Commissioner to London, The Right Honourable Garvin Nicholas, held a Diwali Celebration at his official Residence in London a few years ago. The deeyas were from Trinidad and it was really delightful to see them lit around his official residence and for him to invite ex-patriots to his home. It was great to hear the religious ceremony, as well as to partake of the Diwali food and sweets.

 

Generally in India, Diwali is still celebrated as a grateful close to the financial year, and signals the aspirations and blessings for the coming year. When I joined the British Library, it was also the start of the Mughal Exhibition. I honestly did not know much about the Mughal Empire, as our education of India in Trinidad tends to rightly focus on Indentureship of Indians to the Caribbean.

Since the exhibition, I am certainly more aware of the Mughal Empire and life in that time. It was amazing to see their artwork in manuscripts and there are several pictures with Diwali, Holi and other celebrations depicted. The opening party for the Mughal Exhibition was also a memorable experience of Indian culture that reminded me of Trinidad.

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For these reasons, Diwali is one autumnal celebration that I look forward to at this time of year. I like when contacts share current photos on social media of Diwali in Trinidad, as I still see how it is celebrated and how it has developed over the years since I left. I usually have to ask Trinidadian relatives what is the date for Diwali so that I celebrate it in unison with them. It is a public holiday in Trinidad and I usually try to ‘fast’ for a few days by eating vegetarian food. I also prepare vegetarian dishes and sweets for Diwali night. I usually make Prasad as an offering – which is a sweet delicacy. I also light candles, sometimes in decorated jams jars as I can’t find deeyas here.  It is a time for me to give thanks for what I have and yes…even say a little prayer. This is my small way of continuing that tradition, rituals and hope for light to triumph darkness for the earth and my loved ones, but also for everyone all over the world.

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