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.2 A gazetted public holiday in Singapore, public festivities during Deepavali are concentrated in the Little India area.
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 diya (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 the sixth Sikh guru, Guru Hargobind, was released from imprisonment by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The Sikhs celebrate Deepavali in memory of Guru Hargobind.8
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 diya 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 diya 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 deemed inauspicious.19
Thanksgiving prayers and puja (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, diya 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 merchants who suffered heavy losses in the year, their friends may contribute funds during Deepavali to help them 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
1. Sinnappah Arasaratnam, Indian Festivals in Malaya (Kuala Lumpur: Marican & sons, 1966), 37. (Call no. RCLOS 294.536 ARA-[SEA]); “Deepavali Even Brighter This Year,” Straits Times, 4 October 1999, 35. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “The Significance of Deepavali,” Straits Times, 8 November 1936, 22. (From NewspaperSG); Mohinder Singh, oral history interview by Pitt Kuan Wah, 15 July 1985, transcript and MP3 audio 28:57, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000546), 432; Girishchandra Kothari, oral history interview by Daniel Chew, 14 May 1985, transcript and MP3 audio 28:52, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000549), 175.
3. Arasaratnam, Indian Festivals in Malaya, 38.
4. “The Deepavali Festival,” Straits Times, 28 October 1913, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
5. A. P. Raman and S. V. Krishnan, “Rows of Lights Drive Away Darkness and Gloom,” Straits Times, 4 November 1983, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Om Lata Bahadur, The Book of Hindu Festivals and Ceremonies (New Delhi: UBS Publishers’ Distributors, 1997), 209. (Call no. R 294.536 BAH)
7. Falaq Kagda, India (Oxford: Heinemann Library, 1997), 12. (Call no. YR 394.26 KAG-[CUS])
8. Mohinder Singh, oral history interview; “Triumph of good Lights Up the Day,” Straits Times, 26 October 1983, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
9. K. Gnanambal, K. (2008) “Festivals on an All India Basis,” in Usha Sharma, Festivals in Indian Society, vol. 2 (New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2008), 75. (Call no. R 394.26954 SHA-[CUS])
10. Raman and Krishnan, “Rows of Lights”; Heroes, Demons and Kings Add Light to a Fascinating Legend,” Straits Times, 22 October 1989, 11. (From NewspaperSG); Valuppillai s/o Pandarapillai, oral history interview by Pitt Kuan Wah, 17 January 1984, transcript and MP3 audio 29:56, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000339), 265.
11. “Deepavali 101,” Straits Times, 16 October 2005, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Kavita Ratty, “A Feast of Sweets,” Today, 6 November 2001, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Deepavali 101.”
14. Serene Foo, “Brighten Up Your Home,” Today, 9 November 2001, 44. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Velauthar Ambiavagar, oral history interview by Pitt Kuan Wah, 15 February 1984, transcript and MP3 audio 32:12, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000355), 140; Foo, “Brighten Up Your Home.”
16. “Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice,” Straits Times, 14 October 1984, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Arasaratnam, Indian Festivals in Malaya, 39.
18. “A Bright Beginning with New Clothes,” Straits Times, 26 October 1986, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Boon Chan and Magdalen Ng, “Seeing Red Over Black,” Straits Times, 25 October 2009, 45. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Puja Spirit Abroad in Singapore Today,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 6 November 1934, 2; Sujin Thomas, “Bright and Busy,” Straits Times, 16 October 2005, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Heroes, Demons and Kings Add Light to a fascinating Legend,” Straits Times, 22 October 1989, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Seva Singh, oral history interview by Pitt Kuan Wah, 25 April 1984, transcript and MP3 audio 26:34, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000428), 194.
23. Wang Hui Fen, “Light Fantastic,” Straits Times, 28 October 2008, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Veena Joshi, “Hindus Light Up for the Goddess of Wealth,” Straits Times, 16 October 1987, 10; “Crackdown in S’pore on Crackers,” Straits Times, 31 March 1970, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Raman and Krishnan, “Rows of Lights Drive.”
26. Arasaratnam, Indian Festivals in Malaya, 40.
27. “Significance of Deepavali.”
28. “Deepavali,” Straits Times, 31 October 1929, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “Hindu Deepavali Festival,” Straits Times, 7 November 1929, 17. (From NewspaperSG); “Puja Spirit Abroad.”
30. “Shops Are Busy for Deepavali,” Straits Times, 24 October 1951, 7; K. Malathy, “Deepavali Joy,” Straits Times, 26 October 1981, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Srivatsa, “Deepavali,” Straits Times, 12 November 1982, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “Deepavali This Year with Lots of Lights,” Straits Times, 21 September 1985, 40. (From NewspaperSG)
33. "Deepavali Even Brighter This Year," Straits Times, 4 October 1999, 35. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Frankie Chee, “Bright Lights in Little India,” Straits Times, 11 October 2009, 43. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Rahimah Rashith, “Little India Gets into the Deepavali Groove,” Straits Times, 2 September 2016, 9. (From NewspaperSG); “In pictures: Deepavali in Singapore Through the Years,” Straits Times, 4 October 2017.
36. Genevieve Jiang, “Deepavali Special,” New Paper, 27 October 2000, 3; Alfred Siew, “Thousands Throng Serangoon Road to Celebrate Deepavali,” Straits Times, 9 November 2007, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Akshita Nanda, “Deepavali Arts Extravaganza,” Straits Times, 16 August 2013, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Deepika Shetty, “Top Acts Galore for Deepavali,” Straits Times, 31 August 2013, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at October 2019 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.