If there is one country that knows how to celebrate it's India - and in the middle of the nation's jam-packed festival calendar is Diwali, one of the most important Hindu festivals of the year. Diwali 2011 will begin on Wednesday Oct. 26, and preparations are already underway for the festivities.
Broadly speaking, Diwali is India's Festival of Lights and a joyous celebration that honors the triumph of good over evil.
Diwali falls on the new moon and lasts for five full days. It 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.
The holiday is known as the Festival of Lights because of the common practice of lighting small oil lamps (called diyas) and placing them around the home, in courtyards, gardens, verandahs, on the walls and on roof tops.
Also known by the name Deepavali, the festival of Diwali is not only celebrated in India, but in Singapore, Malaysia, and across the globe. Diwali 2011 is an official holiday in India, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Mauritius, Malaysia, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Fiji.
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.
The Festival of Diwali symbolizes a change of season and a change of mood. While Diwali is predominantly celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains also embrace the celebration. Each religion has a different take on Diwali; however, one thing remains the same: Diwali is about joy, happiness and peace for all. The defeat of evil is celebrated with the bursting of firecrackers, exchange of sweets, and generally merriment with friends and families.
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 tied to the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana (a powerful demon) and his triumphant return from exile. Hoping to make Lord Rama's return as easy and safe as possible, his subjects lit the way with thousands of oil lamps.
Like all Hindu celebrations, spirituality lies at the heart of Diwali. Two deities play a prominent role in the festivities, Lakshmi and Ganesh.
Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, brings good luck and promising beginnings. Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, brings the hope of prosperity, wisdom and fortune.
As the beginning of the New Year, there is plenty of build up to the Diwali celebrations. Many 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.
By far, the most popular gift of Diwali is mithai (Indian sweets). Shops will have lavish displays of fudge-like sweets and treats for Diwali in flavors like cashew nut, pistachio, and sweet cheese.
Nicely packaged dried fruits and nuts are also popular.
On the first day of Diwali, many women will buy gold, silver or new utensils for the house, believing the time to be auspicious for such purchases.
Quite curiously, the indulgence of gambling, especially in Northern India, has become an integral part of the holiday for men.
Diwali Day By Day
In 2011, Diwali will last from Wednesday Oct. 26 to Sunday Oct. 30.
The first day typically consists of renovations, decorations, and cleansing. Oil lamps are lit, and auspicious purchases are made. In rural areas, cows are typically revered on this day.
On the second day, people will typically take a bath before sunrise and anoint themselves with oil. On this day of Diwali, many will be on the streets bursting firecrackers.
The third day is the main day of the Diwali festival. On this day, people will share gifts and sweets with friends and relatives. Women typically prepare delicacies and the whole house is lit up by the diyas.
The fourth day is the Govardhan-Puja or Annakoot. In the temples, the deities are bathed with milk and adorned with gifts.
The final day of Diwali is called Bhai Duj and is a day where sisters invite their brothers and family to their home for delicacies. In turn the brothers offer gifts and sweets.
Happy Diwali 2011!