What is Diwali and how is it celebrated?
Learn all about Diwali, also known as the festival of lights, including how it's celebrated and what delicious treats you can make for a fabulous feast with family and friends.
Once the Indian summer season and monsoon rains give way to cooler evenings, thoughts turn to the festival season, of which Diwali is the highlight. It’s the most important date in the Hindu calendar, and everyone is invited to join in the celebrations.
Often referred to as the festival of lights, (or Deepavali in south India), Diwali is a time for religious rituals and sharing traditional stories. It’s also an opportunity to spruce up the home, buy new clothes, and, of course, enjoy parties, feasting and an exchange of gifts.
Try our best ever Indian-inspired recipes to create your own flavoursome feast.
What is Diwali?
Every region in India has distinctive traditions for commemorating this festival, but whatever the customs, there is agreement that Diwali represents the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness and wisdom over ignorance. This is linked to the ancient legend of Lord Rama, who was deprived of his kingdom and sent into exile for 14 years. Diwali celebrates Rama’s eventual defeat of the evil spirit Ravana, and his triumphant return to his home.
The business community considers it an auspicious time to start new ventures, as the festival coincides with the Hindu New Year. It also holds special significance for married couples and babies celebrating their first Diwali, as both sides of the family can come together.
In India, it’s a five-day festival featuring different ceremonies each day, with the third day being the main event.
On Diwali night, most Hindus offer prayers to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Ganesh, the god representing good fortune and wisdom for the coming year.
As the religious ceremony comes to a close, sweetmeat offerings are placed in front of the deities, and small clay lamps known as diyas are arranged inside homes and outdoors, too. The aim is to attract Lakshmi’s attention and guide her towards these twinkling lamps to bestow blessings and prosperity for the year ahead.
When is Diwali?
Diwali follows the Hindu lunar calendar and its date changes annually – it’s celebrated on a moonless night in October or November.
How is Diwali celebrated?
The weeks leading up to Diwali are traditionally a time for redecorating the home, buying new clothes and jewellery, and exchanging gifts such as sweetmeats, dried fruits and nuts. This is the season for dinner parties, outdoor food festivals and craft fairs, all of which help build up excitement ahead of the main Diwali celebration.
Gambling, especially in north India, is part of traditional celebrations, and card games are played late into the night in the weeks before Diwali. Expect drinks and and plenty of finger food at these parties, which will usually include platters of kebabs, fried savoury snacks, tandoori grills and spiced sweetmeats.
The five days of Diwali
Two days before the main festival day, it’s considered good luck to buy a metallic kitchen implement, such as a steel ladle, or, if budget allows, a more extravagant kitchen appliance.
The day before Diwali is known as ‘chotti Diwali’ (or ‘little Diwali’). Traditionally, it was a day for getting on with preparations for the big day, but now it’s also an opportunity for last-minute errands and gift exchanges. It’s also a time when intricate floral and geometrical designs, known as ‘rangoli’, are created on floors using coloured powders, rice flour and flower petals.
The third day is the main Diwali celebration. As the sun sets, prayers are said to Lakshmi and Ganesh, then dozens of clay lamps are arranged around the house. Firework displays follow, but in recent years these have been scaled back due to noise and air pollution concerns. This doesn't dampen the party spirit, though – especially as there’s a lavish dinner to enjoy.
Activities on the day after Diwali will vary across different regions. In north India, for example, the morning is dedicated to worshipping the tools of work. Chefs will pay homage to their kitchen implements, businessmen will venerate their ledgers, and artists will offer gratitude for their paints and palettes.
On the fifth and final day of Diwali celebrations, sisters pray for the well-being of their brothers, and receive sweetmeats and gifts in return.
What food is eaten during Diwali?
Each region has its favourite dishes. No one fasts on Diwali and there’s no set evening menu. In some homes, meals aren’t even vegetarian.
Savoury snacks could include samosas, bhajis, aloo tikki (griddle-cooked potato patties) and channa bhatura (spiced chickpeas and puffed bread). Gujarat in west India is famed for its crunchy snacks, known as ‘farssan’.
But it’s sweetmeats (‘mithai’) that are the stars of Diwali. They’re made with dairy produce, which has religious significance, and offered to both gods and guests.
Halwai shops are dedicated to making sweet and savoury snacks, although home cooks will also make family favourites, such as fudgy blocks of barfi and fried and sweetened gram flour balls known as ladoos. Try our spiced gram flour ladoo with fragrant saffron and chopped cashews. Then there’s gulab jamun (syrupy dumplings) and cardamom-spiced kheer (rice pudding). Halwas, such as those made with carrots, wholewheat flour and semolina, are enjoyed throughout the day as well as for dessert. This Punjabi semolina halwa has a deliciously buttery flavour. And, to fill any gaps, nankhatai (a shortbread-like biscuit) makes a marvellous match with masala chai.
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