At the end of October, people across India celebrate Diwali. Officially, this holiday is known as the Festival of Lights. But, more noticeably, it should be called the Festival of Crackers. Fire crackers. Diwali celebrates the triumph of good over evil, and the destruction of a 10-headed demon by Lord Rama. In the U.S., if we learn about Diwali at all, it is often equated to Christmas, most probably because of it usually falls close to or during the Anglo-American “Holiday Season.” The celebrations didn’t seem too much like Christmas to me, as the fire crackers tend to overpower most other aspects of the holiday, giving it more of a feeling like Fourth of July.
My local friends did tell me though that there seemed to be less crackers this year, that it didn’t seem quite as noisy. Perhaps this was because of the fairly strong environmental movement to limit the use of crackers, which add smoke pollution to the air, waste pollution to the ground, and sound pollution to the city. People light crackers without safety precautions, burning their hands and feet, and pets and unsuspecting birds often get caught in the crossfire. At my school, there was a drawing competition to create a poster with the theme “Colorful Diwali Without Crackers.” Here, students depicted other elements of the festival. A few drew the story of Rama and the Demon, but many focused on the traditional oil lamp, the diya. Lighting the lamps and candles to spread the light of the festival, spending time with family and loved ones, and giving to those in need. (Here we can see the similarities to Christmas, and also of course to Hanukkah, another Festival of Light which also gets grouped in the “‘Christmas’ of other religions” curriculum.) Some really lovely student-drawn posters showed the flame of the oil lamp blooming into a tree, emphasizing the environmental themes of the movement. Several people did tell me that they chose not to burst crackers this year.
Diwali also marks the start of a new period in one’s life. It is considered an auspicious time to take up new things, like a new job or new school. This also includes buying a new outfit, “Diwali dress.” Most everyone who celebrates Diwali will wear new clothes purchased for the occasion. Many shops have sales, and in the days leading up to Diwali in Pondicherry, the main commercial streets were packed with people, going by foot, cycle, or motorbike, to do their Diwali shopping.
Another important part of the celebrations are, of course, the sweets. Ladoo, milk cake, gulab jamu, murukku, and scores of other sweets whose names I don’t know (and many of which I don’t actually like… just give me cookies, cakes, candies and I’m happy.) This is somewhat similar to the “Season of Giving,” as sweets are exchanged with neighbors, family, and friends. This year Diwali fell on the same weekend of Halloween, which I also celebrated with full force, so it was essentially a sugar-rushed tooth-decaying couple of days.
The traditional Tamil celebration of Diwali begins early in the morning as Hindus go to temple to pray, give thanks, and worship Lord Rama and other patron deities. The temple visit is followed by a big morning meal, and my roommate and I joined our friend’s family for these celebrations. The food for the meal was first placed before an alter of candles and idols of the gods to be blessed in the ritual known as puja, which was carefully planned to take place during auspicious hours of the morning. Our friend’s mother rang a small tinkling bell to mark the start of puja and moved an oil lamp in circles before the alter before offering the flame to each family member. They waved their hands over the flame and washed the heat and light over their heads. They recited some prayers and told us to make any wish and it would be sure to come true. After puja, we sat on the floor and ate a feast of a meal consisting of traditional breakfast foods dosai, vada, and idly, as well as some rice with rasam, sambar, non-vegetarian gravies. Everything was served on the traditional banana leaf, and was accompanied by Diwali sweets.
After the meal, we took to the streets to burst the morning round of crackers. Most of these werejust noisemakers as the glowing sparkling ones are reserved for nighttime. Constant popping and explosions could be heard throughout the day. The one sure precaution for safety is the long charcoal stick that is used to light the crackers. This at least gives you an extra meter or so head start as you scamper to the other side of the street to brace yourself for the small but loud explosion. In the meantime and throughout the day, friends, family, and neighbors visited each other to exchange bags, boxes, or trays lined with banana leaves baring traditional Diwali sweets. One beautiful thing about Pondicherry is that local Tamil traditions often collide and combine with French or other Western expat influences. The boxes of Junior Mints that I took to my Diwali hosts were blessed during puja and then found their way onto the tray of traditional sweets that was distributed amongst the neighbors.
After several rounds of crackers, we walked off our brunch and came back only to be fed a second meal: a light lunch of white rice with rasam. We returned to our home to take rest in the afternoon. Indeed, even the celebrations of Diwali did not break the daily rhythm of Pondicherry. The mid-afternoon lull that normally occurs as people slink to their couches and beds to take naps after lunch still brought a quiet break during the day of crackers. In the evening, the celebrations picked up again and we joined our neighbors in the street for some more crackers. This time, the town was surely alive with full form fireworks, or “outs,” which were shot from the middle of busy streets and rooftops. Later we joined a rooftop party with other foreigners and North Indians (who typically celebrate Diwali with much more gusto than southerners). We lined the rooftop with candles, but still carried on with sparklers, crackers, and fireworks. And while we celebrated until the early hours of the morning, most of the rest of the town was quiet by around 11pm, typical for sleepy Pondicherry. It was a fun festival, but by the end of it, I was definitely over the excitement of the crackers. If I have a chance to celebrate again, maybe I’ll just protect the environment instead… “Colorful Diwali Without Crackers.”