Diwali or Deepawali, literally ‘an array of lamps’, is the festival of lights and is celebrated on the darkest night of Kartik. It is the most important festival in India. Diwali has a special importance, which has come up through the last 5000-7000 years. Originally celebrated by HinduÂ’s, it has now crossed the bounds of religion and is celebrated by all in India with fervor and gaiety. This day is a public holiday all over India. Diwali is also perhaps the oldest festival still celebrated today and is mentioned in the Ramayana. The celebrations include the lighting of lamps and candles, and the bursting of crackers. Friends and neighbors exchange special sweets. People buy new clothes and in fact, in certain communities, it is absolutely essential to wear new clothes on this day.
Diwali in India is equivalent to Christmas in the West. Therefore it is also the time when people get the festival bonus to their salaries. It marks the beginning of the New Year for a large majority of Hindus, especially the trader community. Preparations for the festival begin many days prior to Diwali. It is time for a thorough cleaning of the house, for the belief is that Lakshmi will enter clean and nicely decorated houses. The scientific reason is that the monsoon is a time for insects and fungus to breed. With the end of the monsoon, homes need to be cleaned and painted, and belongings aired and dried before the onset of winter. The festival itself extends over about a week even though the most important day is the new moon day.
Since Diwali falls on the new moon night, lamps are lit to brighten this moonless night. According to a myth, Lakshmi will not enter a dark house. The lamps also welcome home the spirits of dead ancestors, who are believed to visit on this auspicious night. In addition, the light frightens away any evil spirit that might be wandering about near the house on this night. In Orissa, lamps are lit to light up the dark path that the spirits of ancestors take back to heaven. In modern times, wax candles and colored electric bulbs have replaced ghee diyas. In many areas, there is a competition of sorts among neighbors as everyone tries to have the brightest lights.
The origin of Diwali can be traced back to ancient India, when it was probably an important harvesting season. It was thus extremely important to the largely pastoral Vaishya community. Their granaries were full, and the weather was good, at the end of the long monsoon and before the arduous winter. It was therefore a good time to celebrate. The Vaishya community began their new year with this happy occasion, after paying their debts and clearing their ledgers. As the religion developed, various mythological stories and explanations were attributed to this festival to give it religious sanction.However today, this historical explanation is all but lost among the many stories and folklore linked with the origin of the festival. According to the most popular one, Diwali is celebrated in honor of Rama, his consort Sita and brother Lakshmana, returning to their kingdom Ayodhya after a 14-year exile. To celebrate thisevent, people at Ayodhya are believed to have lit up their houses with lamps. The illuminations also symbolize the removal of spiritual darkness and the onset of happiness and prosperity.