Deccan Chronicle

Shailaja Khanna | The many moods & myths of Diwali

Deccan Chronicle.| Shailaja Khanna

Published on: October 29, 2022 | Updated on: October 30, 2022
Sadly, over the years, celebrating Diwali with fervour has become more about an extravagant display of wealth. (Photo: ANI)

Sadly, over the years, celebrating Diwali with fervour has become more about an extravagant display of wealth. (Photo: ANI)

After two long years, Diwali was celebrated with aplomb in most parts of India. With some, there was guilt at one’s overt display of enjoyment. So many in their own circles or right next door could not participate following the loss of a loved one to the pandemic or to complications arising from overloaded hospitals due to Covid. For a section amongst them, this experience was accompanied by financial insolvency as medical insurances ran out while private hospitals overcharged hapless patients.

The traditional Indian concept of a long mourning, waiting a full year before celebrating, is dying out cities. But in the interiors, the customary year of bereavement is still observed, and seeing an unlit house amongst several others decked in rows of colourful lamps was a sobering sight. Not celebrating with the exchange of traditional sweets was another way of socially registering one’s sorrow.

Being in Himachal Pradesh this year for Diwali was bracing for me. I have recently lost my mother.

Diwali in this part of the hills is a little muted compared to the one in the plains. There are similarities; the shops are full of products, ranging from crackers, lights and artificial flowers to brightly painted resin and mud cast idols. Roads are jam packed with vehicles.

The difference lies in the fact that the actual celebration on Diwali in the hills is marked more by floral decor on every doorway than lamps, aside from rangoli. While diyas are ubiquitous, people here go for electric lights for a practical reason; the wind in the hills makes lighting lamps, and keeping them lit, a challenge. Inevitably, crackers made their appearance late in the night, but this noise in the hills was far more perfunctory than in the plains where it is a serious, sustained, prolonged and polluting affair (and where this year, the decibels reportedly went back to the levels that used to prevail several decades earlier, all thanks to the underground market). Investing in new clothes is another common custom.

Sadly, over the years, celebrating Diwali with fervour has become more about an extravagant display of wealth; of how much was spent on lights and crackers, what was shared with neighbours and friends, and in a business context, how much was presented to useful associates. In some parts of northern India, the obsession with attracting lakshmi through gambling is manic and represents a grotesque distortion of the innocent spirit of the festival.

One cannot generalise when it comes to Diwali in Himachal Pradesh. There are regional differences  – Chamba is influenced by Jammu, Hamirpur by Punjab, and upper Kinnaur by Ladakh and Tibet.

Speaking to an aunt from an earlier generation about Diwali celebrations from about half a century ago, for instance, was eye-opening. In the erstwhile princely state of Koti, Himachal Pradesh, it was dominated by music, than by worship. Musicians would collect in the palace and perform; there were all kinds of instruments available, as was an appreciative and discerning audience. One assumes the lyrics of the compositions sung would have been of a sacred nature as the ragas are associated with auspiciousness.

An interesting anecdote is about how the simple musicians, who usually went bare headed, learnt how to tie a chaste white pugree when going to perform in the royal presence! Knowing about this simple gesture of respect, an emotion increasingly scarce in our competitive milieu, makes one wonder if democracy is actually an unmitigated blessing – perhaps being in awe of a senior or elder is conducive to striving harder for excellence?  

Diwali is somewhat antithetical to Kalipuja in West Bengal, Odisha and Assam where amavasya or the darkest night of the lunar month is devoted to the black goddess who is so wild that she can only be worshipped outside the hearth or the domestic sphere. The tradition of Lakshmi puja in northern and southern India, on the other hand, aims to dispel rather than contain that darkness and negativity.

Where Himachal Pradesh is concerned, most inhabitants are Shaiva or Shakti worshippers, too; so celebrating Diwali is in fact a relatively new import and the importance of Lord Rama returning to Ayodhya and being welcomed with lights is not really of paramount importance.

An interesting custom from Sirmaur, Chopal, is Buddhi Diwali. It is celebrated exactly one month after Diwali. There is no unanimity of opinion as to the origin of this custom – some aver that it took some time for people residing in the hills to hear that Lord Rama had actually returned to Ayodhya, so their marking of the event is a month late! Others say the harvest finishes around a month after Diwali, which is when it makes sense for hill folk celebrate.

A third version, which is probably the most authentic, delinks the celebration totally from Lord Rama, and instead connects it to the slaying of the demons, Dano and Asur. The celebration takes the form of dancing and singing around a bonfire, and not decorating one’s home with lamps.

Whatever be the reason of the festival, the way to celebrate it is to reunite with one’s dear ones and make it an excuse for visiting friends, family and home.

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