Deepavali or Diwali is one of the major celebrations of the Hindu community. In countries with a significant Hindu population, such as Malaysia, it is a public holiday. While you may think oil lamps are lit because your friend’s amma told them to do so, there’s certainly more to it!
As we are just a week away from Deepavali, there’s no better time than now to delve into common traditions of this celebration.
1. Why are oil lamps lit for Deepavali?
There are two stories behind the lighting of oil lamps (or diyas). In southern India, Deepavali is popularly linked to a story about the Hindu god Krishna, a different incarnation of Vishnu, in which he frees some 16,000 women from Narakasuran, a demon king. On his death, Narakasuran was said to have repented and his death was celebrated with the lighting of clay oil lamps, symbolising the triumph of light over darkness; good over evil. Deepavali is also considered a time to venerate the Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity, with clay oil lamps being lit in order to guide Lakshmi into one’s home.
In northern India, a common tale associated with Deepavali or Diwali is about Lord Rama, one of the incarnations of the god Vishnu, who was exiled to the forest with his wife, Sita, and brother, Lakshman for 14 years. When Ravana, the Asura King of Lanka kidnaps Sita, Lord Rama goes to war with Ravana, building up an army of vanaras, or forest-dwellers, to rescue her. The vanaras built a bridge over from India to Lanka, rescued Sita and killed Ravana. As Rama and Sita return to the north, clay oil lamps or diyas are lit throughout the city by an overjoyed Ayodhya to light their way home. This version is also popular in South India.
These stories shed some light (see, what we did there?) on the significance of oil lamps taking centrestage in this celebration.
2. Why do family members take an oil bath?
Traditionally, Deepavali celebrations get off to an early start. Members of a household wake up early to take a herbal oil bath, traditionally with sesame oil (although castor or coconut oil is also popular). Symbolically, the oil bath is a metaphor for new beginnings, serving to remove all spiritual and physical ‘dirt’ such as ego, jealousy, etc. The removal of these ‘impurities’, both physical and mental, serve to prepare one to be blessed with prosperity and wealth. This is followed by a family prayer service, either at home or at the local temple.
3. Why are there colourful decorative patterns (‘kolam’) at the entrance of a home?
Another common sight during Deepavali would be the decorative kolam. Kolams, also known as Rangolis are a form of Indian folk art which are traditionally drawn to decorate doorways and entryways. In Malaysia, however, it is more common to see kolams or rangoli drawn on festive occasions, such as weddings or celebrations of festivals. These intricate patterns are usually made from rice flour, coloured rice, coloured sand or flower petals, with patterns ranging from simple geometric designs to elaborately formed shapes and patterns.
Kolams are particularly important on Deepavali as they serve as a visual prayer to the Goddess Lakshmi a.k.a. the Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity, and as an invitation to request her presence within one’s home during the festive period (and even longer). Another popular belief is that the Kolam wards off negative energy which can harm one’s home and family.
4. What does the term ‘Thalai Deepavali’ mean?
If you have any friends who’ve just got married and do celebrate Deepavali, you may have heard this term being bandied around by the older adults. A popular Deepavali tradition includes the tradition of ‘Thalai Deepavali’ which refers to the first Deepavali celebration by newlyweds, spent with the bride’s family. While back in the day, Thalai Deepavali was normally the first and last Deepavali a new bride would spend with her family as a married woman, nowadays most couples opt to alternate family visits during the festival.
While celebrations this year may be different due to the pandemic, you can still make the festivities special by staying connected online with your family and friends! Join in the fun by taking some time out to make Deepavali goodies at home with your own family – check out our next article on mouthwatering Deepavali snacks!
Stay home and have a safe Deepavali celebration with your loved ones!