Deepavali: A Tale of Kolams, Mutton Curry and Oil Lamps
Hey guys! It's that time of year again when we take our oil baths, dig into our home-made idly and mutton curry, get loads of angpau and play firecrackers. It's the much loved Festival of Lights! Wishing all of you a Happy Deepavali and I hope you had a good one with your loved ones.
I teach part-time at a nearby learning centre and I received an interesting question from one of my students last week.
"Teacher, what is Deepavali?"
"Oh, it's a Hindu festival. It's also known as the Festival of Lights."
"Why do Hindus celebrate Deepavali?"
"Ermm...well, long ago there was this demon and one of our Gods defeated this evil demon and we celebrate Deepavali to commemorate this triumph. So, going back to your homework..."
I have celebrated Deepavali for 26 years and I didn't have a very convincing answer to give my curious student. Why do we celebrate Deepavali? When I think of Deepavali, I think of family, good food and good movies on Astro. But along the way, I seemed to have forgotten the significance of this auspicious day.
Based on my online reading, there appears to be several schools of thought in regard to why we celebrate Deepavali. Some say it is the birthday of Goddess Lakshmi. Others believe that it commemorates the day Lord Krishna defeated the evil demon king Narakaasur. Some make ties back to the epic Ramayana; it is said that Deepavali is celebrated in honour of Rama's victory over the demon king Ravana. In these stories of victory, people of the land rejoice that the evil demon kings are defeated and light oil lamps that illuminate their once dark and oppressed cities. And this is a tradition that we follow even till this day. On Deepavali night, oil lamps are lit up and on that night, Hindu houses do indeed shine bright like a diamond. The light symbolises the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance. It is a symbol of hope; despite the demons that torment us in our life, there will come a time when the evil is defeated. Perhaps through divine intervention. Or maybe even through the strength we find within ourselves.
I love Deepavali and I especially love its eve. The day before Deepavali is when all the action happens! The final preparations for the grand day. The day we're all working together making the kolam, prepping the kitchen, decorating the hall, lighting the oil lamps, etc. Making the kolam with my family is something I enjoy doing every year. A kolam is a beautiful floral or animal (often peacock) inspired design drawn on the ground using grinded and coloured rice powder. Kolams come in different shapes and sizes, but they're all so colourful and beautiful. My family and I do cheat when it comes to the kolam-making, I must admit. We use the sticker kolam that you can buy in the Indian stores during Deepavali season. None of us are very artistically-inclined and the sticker kolams help a great deal. Some believe that the kolam is a beautiful welcome for Goddess Lakshmi on her birthday. And indeed nothing says 'Welcome Home' quite like a kolam. I remember as a child hearing stories about how kolams are drawn on the ground as a means to give insects food to eat and I always thought that this was such a wonderful thing to do. Art and food, all in one. That kind of two-birds-with-one-stone thinking really appeals to my inner economist.
So once the kolam is made, we light our oil lamps and cosy up for a Deepavali Eve movie night with the family. This year was extra special to me because it's the first Deepavali after marriage. Many call this the 'Thala Deepavali' where the newly weds celebrate Deepavali in the bride's house and there's the usual suspects of course, loads of food, angpau and new clothes. Deepavali with my husband this year was awesome! Of course, it meant lesser mutton per pax but it's ok, I can live with that.
On Deepavali day, we wake up early for the customary oil bath. As newly weds, my husband and I were told to put oil on each others' heads. I started drumming away on his head and he took his revenge by drenching my hair with heaps of oil. Once we take our bath, we change into our new clothes before we pray and get blessings from our elders. Then, we have the much-anticipated Deepavali breakfast of idly and mutton curry, YUM! Once we clean up, we sit around the table for a game of Taboo. It's boys versus girls this year; my dad, brother and husband on Team A and my mum, sister-in-law and myself on Team B. The boys won this year, but we'll back for them next year!
Deepavali means different things to different people. To parents, it's a time when their kid come home and the family is reunited for a festive celebration. For kids, it's a time to visit cousins, play games and collect angpau. For tailors, it's a time of massive rush to finish all the saree blouse orders. For sundry shop owners, it's a time to stock up on muruku and sweets mix, firecrackers and oil lamps. For textile shop owners, it's a time to showcase their new, colorful outfits at the storefront to attract customers. To friends and neighbours, it's a time for open house, catching up and awesome food.
For me, Deepavali is a celebration of family. No matter where you are or what you're doing, this festival draws you back to what matters most in life. It is in the warm embrace of family, whether inherited, married into or adopted, that we find peace. Our Deepavali traditions may differ; whether it's helping amma bake cookies, cleaning the house, making the kolam, cutting vegetables or streaming a movie for the family to watch, it all brings us together. And in this togetherness, I find a voice inside myself saying, "It'll be ok. They're here, it will always be ok."