The last of the crackers have been burst. The haze is beginning to lift, and the noise levels are considerably lower compared to the previous week. And as you pack those decorative lights and the fancy ‘diyas’ away for re-use next year, you might just wonder why these elements have come to be so closely associated with this festival. Why do you burst crackers during Diwali at all?
Diwali, like many other Indian festivals, also has a pan-India following. But Diwali to some and Deepawali to others, the festival is celebrated for very different reasons in different parts of the country, and on different dates too.
In Northern India, it is believed that it was on this new moon day of the Kartika month, that Lord Ram returned to Ayodhya after vanquishing Ravana. The citizens of Ayodhya decorated the entire city with the earthen lamps and illuminated it like never before. This symbolic practice continues in houses all over India. And noisy firecrackers are just the best way of letting the world know that you are celebrating.
One view says that since Lord Ram traveled from South India to his kingdom in the North, the festival is celebrated a day earlier in the South.
Other legends ascribe an entirely different reason for the celebration of the festival in the south. Celebrated as ‘Naraka Chaturdasi’ one day before the Diwali in the North, the festival commemorates the killing of the demon Narakasura, by Sathyabhama, Lord krishna’s wife. So while the Diwali celebrations for North Indians essentially start in the evening, people of Tamil Nadu celebrate the festival early in the morning. Small lamps are lit all around the house and after a special puja for Lord Krishna or Lord Vishnu, children burst firecrackers, celebrating the defeat of the demon.
But why the early hour, you might ask. Some believe that the demon was killed in the morning, while others believe it falls in line with the practice of that period of the day before sunrise (called the Brahma Muhurtham) as being considered the most auspicious.
The concept of Good and bad, is always relative and contextual, especially so when it comes to myths and legends. As you move from one end of the country to another, the roles of the hero, villain, and the anti-hero in these legends often get seen in different lights.
Take the interesting Diwali legend of King Bali.Though known to be an extremely just and righteous ruler, he was of a demonic lineage and therefore, had to be slayed. Lord Vishnu did the deed in his incarnation as the dwarf, ‘Vamana’, the day after Diwali, now celebrated as ‘Balipadyami’
However, Bali was a popular king, and according to legend, he visits his beloved people at least once a year, during the Onam festival. People in his kingdom of Kerala celebrate this festival by decorating their homes to welcome him. So while one part of the country celebrates the slaying of the demon Mahabali during this period, another celebrates his return.
Gambling is another custom that most North Indian homes enthusiastically take part in, during Diwali. It is believed that goddess Parvati played dice with her husband, Lord Shiva on this day and it is hence believed that whosoever gambles on Diwali night would prosper throughout the year. So invite your friends home, and engage in some flush and rummy, and you could give it some legitimacy by claiming to be partaking in Diwali rituals!
Many North Indian business communities start their financial year on the day after Diwali. It is believed that Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth emerged from the ocean of milk on this day and merchants symbolically open new account books on Diwali. Tamil New year falls on a different day that is in no way linked to Diwali. Solar, Lunar, Luni-solar calendars – all have a following in different parts of India, making the same day auspicious or extremely inauspicious depending on which state you are in. But then that is another story…
Diwali may actually be many different festivals being celebrated under the same banner. Contradicting stories, different customs and different days – the strength of our society’s fabric must surely have something to do with our comfort levels with such diversity. As long as they all celebrate the victory of good over evil, and bring in some festive cheer, each to his own, and we seem happy to leave it at that…