Diwali days

Discussion in 'Festivals & Special Days' started by Ashna, Oct 27, 2005.

  1. Ashna

    Ashna Bronze IL'ite

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    Diwali days
    Leisure is the condition of considering life in the approving gaze of God who saw that the world is good. The highest human form of such affirmation is the festival.
    WHEN winter begins in India, the dawn becomes lightly touched with frost, the trees straighten up & a soft new light appears. The summer's harrowing heat & its thundering monsoon give way to Kartik, the golden season of October & November. It is a season of silky sunlight & blossoming trees, when the subcontinent bursts into flaming flower & the gods prepare the earth so they may descend to it in relative comfort. When the chrysanthemums erupt, it is the time of festival.
    Diwali is the festival of lights. Celebrated at the end of the dark fortnight of the Amavasya or the waning moon, it is usually held at the end of October or beginning of November. Diwali comes from the Sanskrit deepavali, meaning "row of lamps"; it’s a time of remembrance, feasts, fireworks, forgiveness & a renewal of life. Life takes on a delicious newness; as the sun turns honey-gold, there is the shivering anticipation on the edges of every starlit evening of winter waiting to return.
    Clay lamps are lined up along verandahs, on windowsills, along driveways, in gardens & courtyards. On the terraces, lamps & candles are placed as far back from the ledge as possible so they do not die from the breeze & plunge the house into inauspicious darkness. The prayer room is swept & swabbed until it gleams defiantly.New clothes, dried fruit & nuts, boxes of pistachios, cashews & raisins,sweets are wrapped for relatives & friends. Plates of sweets are kept ready for guests, among them laddoo (balls of chickpea flour), Kheer (thickened milk sweetened with sugar,nuts & rice), barfi (thickened, boiled-down milk) & jalebis (twirls of fried sugar).
    At night the electric lights are switched off. Small quiet flames gleam under giant trees. Along wayside shrines, candles flicker amid bunches of marigolds. People bring offerings of flowers, rice grains & candles, & leave them on bridges, by the sides of lakes & in front of their homes. While people sleep, Lakshmi ji, goddess of wealth, & Ganesh ji, god of well-being, might emerge from the candle-lit darkness.
    My earliest memories of Diwali are of my grand mother creating rangolis - geometric & floral patterns made from coloured rice flour - at the entrance to the house. My job was to paint two little squiggles on either side of the way which led to the entrance of our house. The squiggles were meant to be the little feet of Lakshmi ji, who trips into homes at night during Diwali to survey family fortunes & decide whether they need a boost. The little squiggles had to be painted all along the drive way& into the prayer room in case the goddess lost her way.
    I took enormous pains over my task. Using a mixture of rice flour & water & a rag twirled into a nib, I would bend over my squiggles for hours, recreating the short fat "S", its crown decorated with five little lines for toes. The noise of the loudspeakers in the templests & the smells of hot oil would fade as I worked my way slowly up from drive way, towards the entrance & into the prayer room, painting the goddess's feet as I went, & thinking how calm & flat the way was, & wondering where her shadow would fall when she stole up the way in the dead of night. But I never saw her shadow, only my own. During Diwali little girls lie in bed waiting for goddesses, but as they fall asleep they realise that perhaps they were never very far away in the first place.
    In the evenings lit only by candles, generational hatreds seems to somehow dissolve in the softness of the light. When mother & daughter bend to light lamps together, the tradition passes almost tangibly from older to younger: take comfort from me, because even after I am gone, I will burn here in these candles. Around the lamps sits an arc of illuminated quiet, a shimmering oval of night, encircling parent & child in the presence of an unobtrusive yet powerful glow. Children bend to touch the feet of visiting grandparents. A father swings his son into the air, then presses the little boy's face close to his own. Free of the harsh, joyless light of electricity, we can wrap ourselves in humanity.
    Diwali holidays are gloriously festive. Streets are strung with bright lights & paper lanterns, markets dress in shimmering golden streamers, & fairy lights wind around trees. These days, the trend is towards flashing fluorescent neon & revolving strobe lights on newly acquired rich homes. But candles & lamps are still everywhere, as are paper lanterns, brass lamp-stands & imitation silver candlesticks. The customary Lakshmi Puja or a prayer to goddess Lakshmi ji is held in almost all homes; temple bells ring out in every neighbourhood.
    A Diwali day begins with a bath using sandalwood & oil. In parts of India the bath must take place at the very wink of dawn because family & friends could start to arrive at the earliest hours. Then come the feasts, breakfast with grandparents, lunches with friends & evening prayers. In north India, Diwali is celebrated as a time when King Rama returns home after victories in war; the houses are decorated to welcome him & the streets are strewn with rose petals. After prayers, this is the time to begin renovations on shops, forgive old business acquaintances their past misdeeds & send them boxes of dry fruit. Maybe, if the stars are right, it is also the time to start a small company. In Bengal, Diwali means prayers to goddess Kali, the fearsome deity who slew an army of demons.
    For two nights families gather to set off fireworks & chat about the passing years. Sparklers, torches & rockets explode in tumultuous abandon, shedding blue-green parachutes, streaking silvery comets & purple flames. Firecrackers burst every few seconds like gunshots across enemy lines, drowning conversation. Parties last late into the night: toasts are raised & feasts begin, accompanied by the heavy artillery of the fireworks.
    But the noise of Diwali does not detract from its serenity. The flashing silks, the decorated boxes of fruits & sweets & skies streaked silver & gold are the outward signs of the rebirth that is happening within. Diwalis mark our passage through life: as we grow older, our festival duties change. As a little girl I used to paint the goddess's feet; as an unmarried professional I helped younger cousins with fireworks; now that I am married & have a home, I make the food & the rangoli just as my grandmother did, & watch my husband arranging lights…may be some day I will see my own daughter paint little feet squiggles up to the prayer room. In years to come, others will take our places at the festival, & we will move on, replenished & ennobled in the gentle light of candles, to become as the gods made us.

    Continued...
     
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  2. Ashna

    Ashna Bronze IL'ite

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    Diwali Days.....Continued

    Diwali Days
    Quite a few years ago I spent Diwali at our guru ji’s place in hardwar with my grandmother, on the banks of the Ganges. In Hindu scripture, human life begins in water, & to water it must return. At the temple, Diwali evening prayers bring glittering life to the great river. The high priests dance & twirl with their lamps held high above their heads, calling out with full throats as thousands of lights are floated off in the river. Frankincense & sandalwood create billows of smoke that float up into the sky. The river froths & splashes. The pilgrims, their senses heightened, raise their hands, chanting with such full-throated appeal that the flesh stands on end & eyes spring with tears. The spirit grows larger until the voice bursts, calling out with the priests & pilgrims, calling upwards & outwards across the river where, as mythology has it, life itself began. After the ceremony, pilgrims go down to the ghats - the steps that lead down to the water - to sit by the river & watch the flames dwindle away. The stars seem to fall into the water. Ghostly processions of devotees come walking down the riverbank holding lamps & torches. Far away, fiery streamers float into the clouds. Now comes a giant stillness, a sombreness of purpose, deliberate slow footsteps because those who have come to sit on the ghats have come, not only to celebrate Diwali but also to gaze on the river, which will one day carry away their bodies to the ocean. Among Hindus, to be cremated on the "burning ghats" of Hardwar & then to have the ashes sprinkled on the holy river is to be counted among the twice blessed. Today when I am remembering it my grandmother’s soul lives some where in those ghats and will be looking & blessing us from above.
    That Diwali I sat on the ghats of a River Ganges glittering like a giant necklace. The banks were busy. Pilgrims were floating lamps in the water, others stood in the river looking up at the sky, others sat like me on the steps, chatting with the sadhus - the holy men - in low voices; others walked softly with their children, holding hands. The temples were alive with joyful uproar- the bells rang out from swaying garlands of marigolds, hibiscus, roses & jasmine - but on the ghats the voices of the sadhus were deep & calming.
    But for me, Diwali has become inseparable from everything I saw that evening: that at the heart of celebration should lie detachment; that at the heart of grief, there is a vision of the Unknowable; that festivals exist to illuminate our homes with divine grace, & that without them we would be incapable of giving or receiving affection, or of growing as life asks us to.
    Diwali - riotously decorated with silks & streamers, noisy, filled with the tumult of family & friends - conceals within itself such messages. Once a year, when a child bends to decorate an entrance, or a father & son light clay lamps together, or some one like me basks in a unknown wisdom on the banks of the Ganges, Diwali is time to stop, to gaze at a candle, & to allow ourselves to rest in life itself.
     

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