Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy Diwali (Festival of the Lights)

I'm a bit behind with some of my posts, what with travelling, constant power-cuts  limited access to wifi & of course the Christmas, but I wanted to post this one I wrote a while back about Diwali because it is such a massive festival here and was without doubt the backdrop to my first few weeks here in India.

It is no exaggeration to say that just about every other day there is some sort of religious ritual, festival or colourful celebration going on in India, however Diwali, so called Inida's Festival of the Lights, is just about one of the biggest. Diwali is celebrated on November 17th and the festivities are spread over a five day period (and then some). If I was to summarise Diwali in a colourful nutshell, I would say, think of Bonfire Night, Guy Fawks Night, Christmas and Halloween all rolled into one giant festive snowball, then sprinkled with fairly lights, tinsel, fireworks and lashings of good will and rolled down into a valley of colourful lanterns, rainbows, candles, glitter and sparkles; while the nights sky is being popped alive with fire and colour and your ears ring to the symphony of screams of delight and laughter. Yes my friend, that, in a nutshell, is Diwali.

Jaipur city shopfront lit up like a fairground

Officially Diwali is the celebration of the triumph of good over evil and small clay lamps filled with oil are lit across homes and businesses to signify this. Houses, hotels and storefronts are lit up like a fairground with twinkly sparkly fairy lights & lanterns, giving the night a truly romantic and magical feel. The clay lamps in homes are kept on during the night and houses are cleaned in order to make the goddess (of wealth) Lakshmi feel welcome. It reminds me very much of the lamps we light on Christmas eve in the Christian faith and I'm aware of how very similar the two celebrations actually are. On the night itself fireworks and firecrackers are burst in order to drive away evil spirits and family members wear new clothes and share delicious sweets and cakes with family and friends (sound familiar?).

Red Hindu swastikas glow brightly, adorning shops and homes. Ironically often alongside white star decorations in the shape of the Star of David. When I first arrived in Jaipur I found it so strange to see these swastika emblems that I have always associated with evil and hatred, glowing so prominently on buildings and shop fronts here. However I was quickly reassured that in Indian culture they they represent good luck or well-being and and that the swastika symbol itself symbolizes the unchanging, all directional and endless nature of God. I get my first education that the swastika has had a very long life before Hitler and the Nazis. It is in fact one of the oldest symbols of mankind, a symbol representing peace, laughter, joy and good luck. It has been worshiped as a symbol of good fortune throughout many faiths and is a big emblem of the Diwali celebrations.

Jaipur city center decorated for Diwali

As it is a holy festival and holiday we get a few days leave off school and better yet my old travel buddy Fiona who I climbed Kilimanjaro with last year has emailed me to let me know she will be in Jaipur for Diwali. I am so delighted for the company and decide to book myself into a hotel for a couple of nights for the festival. As much as I am loving my volunteer work, the volunteer house is run by a very conservative Indian couple with a strict no alcohol policy, 8.30pm curfew, and lights out at 11pm. When I ask if I can get out (the locked door) to go jogging before work in the mornings I am told that I can jog around the basement and trying to walk across the road to discard of some rubbish in a pair of shorts sends shock waves around the compound. In short I'm starting to feel like I'm incarcerated in a women's prison and so I'm delighted at the prospect of a few days of freedom and the possibility of a glass of wine.

 Mother India however has other plans for me and I spend the eve of Diwali camped out on the bathroom floor of my hotel for five hours with possibly the worst case of food poisoning I have ever experienced in my life. I honestly don't think I have ever been sicker and I spend the next day spread like a starfish on my bed, depleted of every ounce of energy and mentally cursing the bottle of unsealed water that I bought the night
before from a road side street seller. If there is no seal on the bottle then the chances are that the bottle has probably been reused and not washed, a common source of sickness for us tourists.

Catch-up with Fiona on Diwali after a night of puking (-:

Fiona texts me to say that she is on her way over to my hotel & because I'm sick we decide to spend Diwali in the open rooftop restaurant of my hotel. This proves to be a very good choice as not only does it give us ample time to have a proper girly catch-up but it also offers us a great view out over the city of Jaipur. The entire city twinkles and sparkles like a royal jewel box and as dusk drips down and the night closes in; the stillness is shattered by the first loud bangs and crackles of fireworks being set off on flat rooftops across Jaipur. It's not long before we are being ushered downstairs to join the family that run the hotel in celebration. The celebration is lead by the family matriarch, a grey haired granny with her hair in a neat bun. All the family dressed in elaborate saris and embroidered suits for the men, surround her as they sing songs of praise and light candles in the darkened reception area. The strong aroma of burning incense fills the air as the granny runs her hands over our heads, blessing us in Hindi. It all feels very Christmassy, familiar and loving and I feel quite emotional as I watch the family hug and take each-others hands, thinking of course of my own family far away in Ireland. Indian hospitality is warm and welcoming and we are made to feel really involved and a part of the celebration. The ritual ends with the sharing of what I can only describe as the most delicious little cakes. Suddenly my stomach is feeling a lot better and myself and Fiona break and share the most delicious little coconutty number. We then head outside where the men of the family start letting off fireworks stockpiled over the last few months. These are no shrinking violet fireworks but the most amazing spectacular ones I have ever seen. Grow men are reduced to little boys as they excitedly light all manner of spinning, popping, spiraling, banging, exploding yokes and jump about squealing like little kids with delight. It really is a most fun celebration and we all happily join in.

Fiona celebrating Diwali with a sparkler 
Later on after Fiona has left, I go back up onto the roof to watch the fireworks. This is not just one firework display, but a thousand separate displays taking place all across the city, as people make their way up onto flat rooftops for the unleashing of firecrackers & fireworks collected over months & months. The sky is now alight with red, green, gold and sliver as it rains down diamonds and sparkles. The bangs, pops and crackles continue all throughout the night and for several nights after; rocking me off to sleep.

It really is a special celebration and for me brought home the similarity between traditions and faiths; we are not all that different after-all. I'm really glad I got to experience it and know next bonfire night I will be giving a little nod across the ocean to India and the celebration of Diwali.

Wishing you all a very Happy & Colourful Diwali, Christmas and New Years!

Namaste from India!

Diwali Fireworks!

Jaipur city center decorated for Diwali
Local markets are awash with Fireworks for sale
Delicious Diwali cakes, I took this pic in Mumbai.
Me Enjoying Diwali celebrations on Nov 18th 2012
Delicious Indian sweets served on Diwali.........YUM!

Jaipur town center


  1. Wow Arlene loving your blog! like how you called it "the Christmas"! Diwali sounds amazing. The colours look spectacular. All the best for the new year xx Aoife (Gallagher)

  2. Great to see you at Christmas Arlene - Happy Travels to Kerela/up north and Happy NEW YEARS :)

  3. Diwali sounds amazing! The pics are fab too. One bit confused me though and i think i must be missing something...

    "When I ask if I can get out (the locked door) to go jogging before work in the mornings"

    Jogging? Eh????

    Hahahaha >:)

  4. Oh so funny Helbert, a regular little comedian aren't we!!!! (-: (-:

  5. Such a nice post about diwali. May all of you have a blessed and prospoerus diwali, here's expressing my most heartfelt Diwali wishes to all of you and to all Hindu around the world. Happy Diwali

  6. Wow, this is so awesome! Those dishes look so yummy. And the lights, very spectacular, from the US, sending you the best Diwali wishes, Cheers and happiness your way.