In the midst of India's jam-packed festival calendar, one celebration stands out from the pack as the most dazzling of them all: Diwali, the Festival of Lights.
Diwali 2011 begins on Wednesday, Oct. 26, and preparations are well underway to make this year's celebration as spectacular as ever.
Though it is one of the most important Hindu festivals of the year, Diwali is also celebrated by several religions including Sikhs, Jains, and some Buddhists. It's also celebrated across the globe from India to Trinidad and Tobago.
Yet, many in the West are clueless about this important holiday. Here's a look at Diwali customs and traditions as well as a day-by-day look at the typical activities of the five-day celebration.
What is Diwali?
Broadly speaking, Diwali is India's Festival of Lights and a joyous celebration that honors the triumph of good over evil.
Diwali occurs on the new moon and lasts for five full days. The festival takes place on the propitious dates during the end of Ashvin and the start of Kartika -- the Hindu lunar calendar months that equate to the Gregorian months of October and November.
Over the years, Diwali has come to symbolize a change of season and a change of mood.
The Customs of Diwali
The holiday is commonly known as the Festival of Lights because of the typical practice of lighting small oil lamps (called diyas) and distributing them around the home, on verandahs and rooftops, and along courtyards, gardens and walls.
Like all Hindu celebrations, spirituality lies at the heart of Diwali. Two deities in particular play a prominent role in the festivities -- Ganesh and Lakshmi.
Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, is said to bring good luck and promising beginnings. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is said to bring the hope of prosperity, fortune and wisdom.
Because it is the beginning of the New Year, there is a great deal of build up to the Diwali celebrations. Most families will take the time to clean houses and shops before decorating them with twinkling lights and lanterns.
Men and women will also typically don new clothes for Diwali, signaling a fresh start for the New Year.
The most popular gift of Diwali is definitely mithai (Indian sweets). Shops across India have lavish displays of fudge-like sweets and treats for Diwali in flavors like pistachio, cashew nut and sweet cheese.
Lavishly packaged nuts and dried fruits are similarly popular.
For the first day of Diwali, many women will buy gold, silver or new utensils for the home, believing the time to be auspicious for such purchases.
Interestingly, the indulgence of gambling, particularly in Northern India, has become an integral part of the holiday for many men.
Diwali in Different Religions
While Diwali is predominantly celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains also embrace the celebration. Each religion has a different take on Diwali but one thing remains the same: Diwali is about joy, happiness and peace for all. The triumph of peace over evil is celebrated with the exchange of sweets, bursting of firecrackers and generally merriment with family and friends.
For Jains, Diwali denotes the attainment of moksha -- the liberation from the cycle of life and death -- by Mahavira, the 6th century BC founder of Jainism's main tenants.
For Sikhs, Diwali denotes the release of Guru Hargobind -- the sixth of Sikhism's 10 gurus -- along with 52 others who were detained in the Gwalior Fort by the Mughal emperor Jehangir.
For Hindus, India's largest religious community, Diwali is inextricably tied to Lord Rama's victory over Ravana (a powerful demon) and his triumphant return from exile. In order to make Lord Rama's return as swift and safe as possible, his subjects lit the way with thousands of earthen lamps.
The Five Days of Diwali 2011
Diwali lasts from Wednesday Oct. 26 to Sunday Oct. 30, 2011.
The first day of Diwali usually involves renovations, decorations, and cleansing. Earthen oil lamps are lit, and auspicious purchases are made. Cows are typically revered on this day in India's rural areas.
People will typically take a bath before sunrise on the second day and anoint themselves with oil. On this day of Diwali, many will take to the streets to burst firecrackers.
Day three is the most celebrated day of the Diwali festival. On this day, people share gifts and treats with family and friends. Women typically prepare delicacies and the entire house is lit up by the glowing diyas.
The fourth day is the Govardhan-Puja or Annakoot. In the temples, the deities are bathed with milk and adorned with gifts.
The last day of Diwali is known as Bhai Duj. It is a day where sisters invite their brothers and family to their home for delicacies. In return, the brothers offer sweets and gifts.
Diwali around the Globe
Also known by the name Deepavali, the festival of Diwali is not just celebrated in India, but in Singapore, Malaysia and across the globe. In 2011, Diwali is an official holiday in India, Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Trinidad and Tobago.
The name Deepavali itself means a string of lights, and the lights of the festival ward off the darkness of the night and bring light and joy into the world.