Diwali: The Festival of Lights

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs around the world recently celebrated Diwali, the festival of lights. From an American vantage point, Diwali is a mash-up of Christmas and the Fourth of July; people exchange gifts, gamble, eat sweets, and set off firecrackers all night long. For Hindus, it marks the beginning of the new year.

There are different stories connected with Diwali, but one of the most central is rooted in the Hindu Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana. The holiday marks Lord Rama’s victory over the 10-headed, demon king Ravana and Rama’s return to the city of Ayodhya after a 14-year exile. People illuminated clay lamps, or diyas, to celebrate Rama’s homecoming — a tradition that continues to this day.

In broad strokes, Diwali marks the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil. The holiday’s name comes from the Sanskrit word dipavali, which means “row of lights.”


Chandigarh, India (photo: Harpreet Singh/Flickr)

This NPR interview with the writer Sandip Roy offers helpful, accessible context on the history, lore, and rituals associated with Diwali. Roy recently interviewed interfaith couples here in the U.S. to learn how they’ve shaped Diwali celebrations to complement “mixed masala” family configurations.

In Nepal, Diwali unfolds over five days. On the second day, dogs are the center of attention. They’re lavished with treats and trot around wearing festive marigold garlands.

Diwali dogs in Nepal
Kathmandu, Nepal (photo: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)

Major Diwali festivities fell on November 5th this year when revelers took to the streets with candles, sparklers, and other creative forms of illumination.


Chennai, India (photo: Mckay Savage/Flickr)


Srinagar, India (photo: Rouf Bhat/AFP/Getty Images)

For our associate producer Shubha Bala, Diwali is a time for buying and wearing new clothes — also for sharing a meal with family.


An Indian woman flicks through a rack of clothing at a pre-Diwali sale in Calcutta, India. (photo: Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP/Getty Images)

Growing up in Canada, Shubha remembers decorating the house with Christmas lights. This was the first year her parents didn’t give her money to buy new clothes, which, she says, was a little disappointing. One year, she used her Diwali money to buy shoes. Her parents disapproved of this Diwali acquisition so she bought a t-shirt instead. When Shubha recently followed up to ask why shoes are not a Diwali-appropriate purchase, they didn’t offer up a clear explanation other than “it’s just the way it is.” She likens it to how some people say it’s disrespectful to wear a hat to church.

Do you have Diwali memories, stories, or traditions that have been meaningful to you? We’d love to hear about them.


A suspended sign in Bangalore, India. (photo: Saad Faruque/Flickr)

Photo at top: Delhi, India (photo: nowyou33/Flickr)

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