Monday, October 20, 2008
by Jennifer Kumar, Cross-Cultural Coach
In 2001 I had the lucky fortune of celebrating Diwali with my friends in their home in Tambaram, Chennai (Tamil Nadu, South India). Although, in modern times, most families celebrate Diwali on the day of (Nov. 14, 2001), the day before (Nov. 13. 2001) was used in preparation.
Hindu holidays are based on lunar and solar (planetary) positions. This is why Hindu holidays never fall on the same day or date of the Western calendar year after year. Diwali falls within a period called Chithi (Tamil Calendar Month). The full moon will fall on Diwali night itself or on the following night. These two days detail the preparation I noticed in the house I stayed.
Anyone can celebrate Diwali in the traditional way similar to the Tamil Brahmin family I celebrated with by following these six simple steps:
1. Clothes Purchase
In reality only those who are very busy or enjoy the extreme crowds will shop on the day just before Diwali. Most people shop a few weeks to a few months ahead of Diwali to avoid the crowds. The most crowded place in Chennai is T. Nagar-- Pondy Bazaar and Ranganathan Street. All the famous shops are here like Pothy's, Nalli's, The Chennai Silks, Sarvana Stores, etc. For jewelry the famous shops are GRT, Lalitha's, among others. One year I went to Nalli's just before Diwali. It is just unbearable. You can not walk nor can you see anything. But, if you go to Chennai, don't miss Nalli's, as it is one of the largest sari shops in Chennai.
Anyhow, for Diwali, most people buy silk (pattu silk or pure silk) saris with a lot of zari, fancy salvaar kamiz for college students, dhoties, lungies or pants and shirts for men and young boys, and pavada davani (half-sari) for the teenage girls.
2. Preparing Food and Sweets
The Diwali "meal" is made on Diwali itself and may or may not have "special" items, besides the daily sambar, rasam, curds and curries. The one thing which is special about the meal it is will be eaten the traditional way -- on a banana leaf, not on steel plates.
The sweets, on the other hand, take much preparation. In the house I stayed, Amma prepared Gulab Jaman, Murrukku, Mysore Pak, adirasam, and tapioca payasam (pudding). All items minus the gulab jaman, were made from scratch. The mysore pak is no-bake, the payasam is boiled and the remaining are fried in oil.
3. Bathing God
The evening before Diwali, the bronze idols were removed from the puja alter and bathed to make them shine. There are some people who do this daily as part of their puja. However, in modern times, most housewives usually do this on special days, like Diwali. Here is the procedure of 'bathing God':
The bronze GODS after polishing with
water, lemon and soap powder
a. Put all idols in a big bowl and cover them with water. Remove the idols and squeeze lemon juice into this water until the water becomes musky. Use only very pure water-- boiled water, aquaguard or mineral water. Keep the squeezed lemons to the side (don't throw them away).
b. Soak the idols in the water for ten minutes. Keep this water to the side.
c. While removing the idols from the water, take them out one by one and rub the squeezed lemons on them. This helps them to shine. Keep the lemon water mixture for later.
d. Keep a bronze brush and some powdered dish soap on a plate. Rub each idol with the brush placing a small amount of the powdered soap on it.
e. After brushing each idol, place them back into the lemon water mixture to soak off the extra soap.
f. Keep the idols on a platter to dry.
g. When dry place back on puja alter.
Be sure to buy flowers the night before Diwali. In India most people use dandelions. In the morning one dandelion is kept on top of each idol, statue or photo.
4. Preparing the clothes before God.
On Diwali, the main puja in this house was to pray to God for a good year, good luck, and to thank God for providing the necessities of life like home, clothes and food. Hence, all the clothes are prepared by placing a bit of turmeric (haldi) on the corners of the dresses and they are placed in front of the puja altar the night before Diwali.
5. Fire Crackers
In the house I stayed, this was not given much importance. There are several types of firecrackers which are used: flower pot, "changachakkaram", sparklers, butterfly and others. Mainly firecrackers used in India for Diwali are small ones that people set off, they are not like the huge displays we see in the western countries. The main attraction is not so much the light or designs given off by the fire crackers, but the noises given off. It seems as though all the people will compete to see who has the loudest fire crackers.
6. Oil for Oil Bath
Tamilians, Brahmins and Non-Brahmins alike, are known for their Diwali early morning tradition of taking an oil-bath. Here I will describe how the oil is prepared and applied before taking water bath on the morning of Diwali.
The oil used for the bath is termed "Gingely Oil" (in English it is called Sesame oil) and is an oil made from a seed with a black covering called "ellu" (ellu means sesame) in Tamil. This oil has a different smell from regular vegetable oil. This oil is also commonly used in oil lamps. This oil is applied to the skin only after it is prepared by boiling the night before with cumin seeds and peppercorns. The oil should be boiled on low until the spicy smell is present.
This oil is applied to the hair and the body before taking a water and soap bath on Diwali morning. It can be applied to only parts of the body or the whole body, the wish of the person applying. It is good to leave it on for at least 30 minutes before bathing to get the freshest feel after bathing. It is said oil baths purify the mind and body and makes one feel very fresh. This oil bath is known as "ganga snanam" in Tamil.
Usually people will wake up very early on the morning of Diwali to start preparations, pujas and bathing rituals. It is common to wake up as early as 4:30 am. There is a very interesting story associated with why it is required to wake up at this time.
There was an evil person roaming a forest who needed to be destroyed, but could only be destroyed by the powerful God, Krishna. this evil being prevented all the people from worshiping God (especially Shiva and Vishnu). So, Krishna was asked to destroy this demon (Asura) named Narakasura. This demon has many powers. He can change his shape and size at will to trick all the people. It is said that Krishna battled and finally killed Narakasura at 4:30 the morning of Diwali, hence it is auspicious to celebrate the 'new life' and the free life to worship God at this time. It also brings very good luck to people to be dressed and ready by sunrise. Some relate taking an oil bath to cleansing yourself of the 'evil Narakasura.' After bathing with water, and cleansing yourself of the evil Narakasura, you are free to pray to God and live happily.
There is also one more interesting story associated with Diwali. Immediately after Narakasura was destroyed, a new troublesome beast was found roaming the forest. He was Surabathman. He also had the power to change his shape and size. Murugan, the son of Shiva and Parvathi and the brother of Ganesha, was called to destroy this annoyance to mankind. Murugan was very brave and strong, but Surabathman was not an easy beast to beat. As Muragan chops of his head, a new head of another beast will appear. Like this, six beastly heads appear and are removed by Murugan until Surabathman's "human" head is seen and also destroyed. After this head is destroyed, Murugan is victorious. It is said, it took six days from the day of Diwali for Murugan to win this battle, one day for each head to be decapitated. It is also for these six days that devotees of Murugan will fast by either only drinking beverages (no alcohol) or eating only tiffens for lunch and dinner (no non-vegetarian food allowed). On the sixth day, Murugan devotees will circle the temple 108 times and break their fast by having a grand meal. Also, on the day immediately following the death of Surabathman, Murugan marries his bride, Deivayannai. All these festivities take place in temples or street processions.
(More Diwali Stories/Legends here.)
**Every community in India has a different special way of celebrating and even in the stories and rituals that surround the festival. I celebrated with Tamil Brahmins.
Day 14 & 15 -- Diwali Celebrations 2001. Part of 2001 India Travel Diary.
This article was read over 43,000 since April 2002 on my tripod site. Reviewed June 2004. Reviewed and posted on Alaivani October 2008.
Thank you for reading!
Author of this post and owner of this blog; Jennifer Kumar, CC, MSW, is a cross-cultural coach helping people find comfort in foreign lands through multicultural advising, interfaith coaching, expat mentoring, English as Second Language conversational and life skills coaching and more! Contact her for more information at authenticjourneys at gmail dot com or follow her on Facebook.
Updated January 2011
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