Deepavali



Deepavali, or diwali (literally translated as “a row of lights”; also known as the Festival of Lights), is a festival celebrated by Hindus worldwide. The festival falls on the 14th day of the dark fortnight in the Tamil month of Aipasi (mid-October to mid-November), and celebrates the triumph of good over evil as well as light over darkness.1

Although Deepavali is a Hindu festival, it is also celebrated by Indians of other religions such as the Sikhs and the Jains.A gazetted public holiday in Singapore, public festivities during Deepavali are concentrated in the Little India area.

Origins
There are several myths associated with Deepavali, including its origins and significance. Despite the variations, these stories have the common theme of good triumphing over evil.

According to the South Indians, Deepavali is associated with Lord Krishna. The myth tells of a cruel demon king, Naraka (also known as Narakasura), who oppressed his people and instilled fear in them. The people prayed to Lord Krishna to help them, and he responded by engaging Naraka in battle and eventually killing him.3 Deepavali is, therefore, also known as Naraka Chathurdasi (Naraka’s 14th day) to commemorate the day the demon was slayed.4

The rule of Naraka was likened to darkness, and his slaying was seen as the dispelling of darkness to welcome light. Hence during Deepavali, the lights are a reminder that darkness can only be removed through light.5

For the North Indians, Deepavali is linked to a myth from the Indian epic, Ramayana. It tells the story of Lord Rama of Ayuthya, who was deprived of his rights to the throne and exiled to the forest for 14 years. After defeating the demon Ravana, Lord Rama returned with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana to claim his throne. Besides celebrating his triumphant return with firecrackers, the people also lit up their homes with diyas (clay lamps), an activity that has since become an annual Deepavali tradition.6

Deepavali is also associated with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty. Many people believe that during Deepavali, Lakshmi brings her wealth and good fortune to the clean and well-lit homes she visits. Therefore, people light up their homes to invite the goddess to visit.7 Deepavali is also significant for the Sikhs because it is attached to an important event in their history. It was during Deepavali that 6th Guru Hargobind was released from imprisonment by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The Sikhs celebrate Deepavali in memory of Guru Hargobind.8


Traditional practices
Deepavali has been celebrated in the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years. Although it is a festival celebrated by all Hindus, there are variations in the practices and the way it is celebrated in different regions of India.9

The North Indians celebrate Deepavali a day later than their southern counterparts, and celebrations can last for five days. They consider Deepavali as a festival to usher in and celebrate a new year. The South Indians, on the other hand, celebrate Deepavali as a festival to mark the end of evil and the beginning of good.10

Preparations for Deepavali begin long before the actual day. The home is cleaned, new clothes are purchased, and sweet and savory snacks are prepared.11 One of the first sweets the South Indians make is the athi resam (the supreme taste), which is a puff made by frying a dough of sugar and ground fermented rice flour. This sweet is given to the goddess of the stove as an offering, and to ask for her blessing to ensure that the sweet-making process is a success. Other treats that are usually offered to guests during Deepavali include the savory, crunchy snack muruku, and sweetmeats such as halwa, burfi, laddu and semia.12

During Deepavali, the doorways of homes are decorated with diyas and kolam (also known as rangoli) – intricate patterns made from coloured rice powder or rice grains.13 The kolam is also considered an act of charity, as it provides food for birds and insects. Apart from Deepavali, the kolam is also created for other occasions such as the Ponggal festival (traditional harvest festival) and weddings.14 Lighted diyas are placed at doorways to “draw auspicious energies into the home”. In the past, little oil lamps with wicks were used. These have since been replaced by electric lightbulbs in multiple colours.15

On the morning of Deepavali, many Hindus – mainly the South Indians – wake up very early to take oil baths. The oldest member of the family places three drops of oil on the foreheads of the other family members, after which they proceed to take their baths.16 An oil bath on Deepavali is believed to have equal merit to taking a bath in the sacred Ganges river in India.17

New clothes – usually traditional Indian attire such as the dhoti (a piece of cloth knotted around the waist and extends to cover the legs; resembles a long skirt) and angavastram (a piece of long cloth draped across one shoulder; paired with the dhoti) for men, and the sari (a long piece of fabric draped around the body) and choli (blouse) for women – are worn during Deepavali, representing a new start and a hope that the individual will become a better person.18 Traditionally, Hindus prefer to wear bright colours during Deepavali. They avoid wearing black, which is associated with death and regarded as inauspicious.19

Thanksgiving prayers and pujas (prayer rituals) performed before the family shrine are also part of the morning ritual. During this time, younger family members prostrate before their elders to receive their blessings.20

After the morning rituals, Hindu families visit temples to offer their prayers, before proceeding to visit relatives and friends.21 Being a religious festival, some Hindus choose to abstain from meat during Deepavali.22

At night, diyas are lit and displayed on window ledges and at doorways.23 While firecrackers and fireworks are part of the Deepavali festivities in India, the firing of crackers without a police permit has been banned in Singapore since 1970.24

Deepavali is also a time for Indian businessmen, mainly the North Indians, to close their accounts and start new ledgers. They engage a priest to conduct special prayers to the goddess Lakshmi, during which the new account books are placed before the deity for her blessings.25 The puja is conducted in the hope that the goddess would increase their profits in the coming year.26 For a merchant who suffered heavy losses in the year, his friends may contribute funds during Deepavali to help him start afresh.27


Public celebrations in Singapore
Indian migrants brought along their customs, including the celebration of Deepavali, to Singapore. Deepavali was declared a public holiday in Singapore in 1929.28

Since the early 1900s, shops in the Serangoon, Selegie and Rochor areas have been decorated and brightly lit in the run-up to Deepavali.29 The area around Serangoon Road, also known as Little India, becomes a hotbed of activity, as people flock to the shops there to purchase textiles, clothes as well as ingredients for making festive goodies and sweetmeats in preparation for Deepavali.30 Other popular items include gold jewellery, flowers and decorative items for the home.31

Adding to the festive atmosphere, the Serangoon Road area is lit up in the fortnight leading up to the festival – a practice that was introduced in 1985. The light-up, along with cultural performances and a fair, attracted more locals and tourists to the area.32 In 1999, the event became even more impressive with the addition of fireworks and the light-up taking place over a bigger area.33 The light-up has since become an annual month-long affair, with some visitors commenting in 2009 that the Deepavali light-up was more impressive than the previous year’s Orchard Road Christmas light-up.34 In recent years, the light-up has been accompanied by other activities such as a countdown concert, a heritage and craft exhibition, as well as a festival village.35

On Deepavali, both locals and tourists visit Little India to soak in the atmosphere. Thousands of Indian migrant workers pack the eateries and queue up to call their loved ones in India. Some also purchase gifts to send to their families back home. Temples may also give out food such as milk and vegetable rice to visitors.36

Since 2002, the festival of Indian arts, Kalaa Utsavam, has been held annually at the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. Featuring dance and musical performances as well as storytelling sessions, the festival aims to bring the Indian community together through the arts. The festival typically attracts an audience of between 30,000 and 40,000 each year.37 In addition to Kalaa Utsavam, concerts showcasing South Asian performers are also staged by independent organisers during the Deepavali period.38 



Author

Stephanie Ho



References
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2. The significance of Deepavali. (1936, November 8). The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Pitt, K. W. (Interviewer). (1985, July 15). Oral history interview with Mohinder Singh [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000546/65/42, p. 432]; Chew, D. (Interviewer). (1985, May 14). Oral history interview withGirishchandra Kothari [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000549/23/16, p. 175]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
3. Arasaratnam, S. (1966). Indian festivals in Malaya. Kuala Lumpur: Marican & sons, p. 38. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.536 ARA-[SEA])
4. The Deepavali festival. (1913, October 28). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Raman, A. P., & Krishnan, S. V. (1983, November 4). Rows of lights drive away darkness and gloom.  The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Bahadur, O. L. (1997). The book of Hindu festivals and ceremonies. New Delhi: UBS Publishers’ Distributors, p. 209. (Call no.: R 294.536 BAH)
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9. Gnanambal, K. (2008) Festivals on an all India basis. In U. Sharma (Ed.), Festivals in Indian Society (Vol. 2). New Delhi: Mittal Publications, p. 75. (Call no.:  R 394.26954 SHA-[CUS])
10. Raman, A. P., & Krishnan, S. V. (1983, November 4). Rows of lights drive away darkness and gloom. The Straits Times, p. 4; Heroes, demons and kings add light to a fascinating legend. (1989, October 22). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Pitt, K. W. (Interviewer). (1984, January 17). Oral history interview with Valuppilai s/o Panarapillai. [Transcript of cassette recording ro. 00039/55/39, pp. 265]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
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16. Sugar and spice and all things nice. (1984, October 14). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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18.  A bright beginning with new clothes. (1986, October 26). The Straits Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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21. Heroes, demons and kings add light to a fascinating legend. (1989, October 22). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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23. Wang, H. F. (2008, October 28). Light fantastic. The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Joshi, V. (1987, October 16). Hindus light up for the goddess of wealth. The Straits Times, p. 10; Crackdown in S’pore on crackers. (1970, March 31). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Raman, A. P., & Krishnan, S. V. (1983, November 4). Rows of lights drive away darkness and gloom. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Arasaratnam, S. (1966). Indian festivals in Malaya. Kuala Lumpur: Marican & sons, p. 40. (Call no.: RCLOS 294.536 ARA-[SEA])
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34. Chee, F (2009, October 11). Bright lights in Little India. The Straits Times, p. 43. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Little India, Singapore. Deepavali, festival of lights. Retrieved from Little India, Singapore website: http://www.littleindia.com.sg/Diwali_in_Singapore.aspx
36. Jiang, G. (2000, October 27). Deepavali special. The New Paper, p. 3; Siew, A. (2007, November 9). Thousands throng Serangoon Road to celebrate Deepavali. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. Nanda, A. (2013, August 16). Deepavali arts extravaganza. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. Shetty, D. (2013, August 31). Top acts galore for Deepavali. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 14 October 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Ethnic festivals--Singapore
Hinduism--Customs and practices
Ethnic festivals
Divali
People and communities>>Customs>>Festivities
Heritage and Culture
Ethnic Communities>>Festivals and Celebrations