Indian celebrations are strong on sweetness and light

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 October, 2011, 12:00am
 

For many Indians, this week marks one of the most important and colourful events on the calendar: Diwali, a five-day festival of lights that signals the start of a new year.

Diwali is celebrated on the 15th day of Kartika, the eighth month of the year on the Hindu calendar.

The festival is thought to have started as a celebration of rituparva when the harvest was completed and friends and family congregated to feast. The celebrations began yesterday with many Hindu households decorating their homes with lights and sprinkling coloured rice delicately on the floors to form patterns called rangoli.

Diyas, small clay oil lamps, are placed on and around the rangoli. Much like the Lunar New Year, homes are cleaned before the big day and everyone gets new clothes to wear. On the first day Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune and wealth, is worshipped and no meat is eaten.

The first day is called dhanteras when the family gathers to pray and most people prepare a dish to be offered to the gods called prasad (holy food), says India Association president Mira Mahtani.

The emphasis over the five days is on sharing sweets called mithais, many of them made from milk, sugar and nuts, often cashews, pistachios and almonds.

The vegetarian dishes on the first day typically include the lentil soup daal and one with seven vegetables, symbolising that this produce will be plentiful for the rest of the year. 'We don't harm any animals on that first day, and we have lots of vegetables so our lives are filled with good things all year,' says Mahtani.

The India Association is of many organisations in Hong Kong that arrange Diwali balls.

Mahtani says the association has hosted a ball for more than 55 years. It was first held at the India Club in Kowloon and moved to bigger hotels due to the growing population.

Mahtani says the atmosphere during Diwali is electrifying. 'Everyone is looking forward to the balls and the luncheons. It's time to get the family together to share gifts and pray. For most Indians, it's time to thank God for all the good things that have happened in the year and to let go of the bad things.'

Diwali celebrates the triumph of good over evil, and is an important part of Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism. It is known as Diwali in northern India and Deepavali in the south of the country.

On the third day of Diwali, which is tomorrow, it is traditional to leave the windows and doors open so Lakshmi will visit the house and bless it, says Megha Kaul, who has lived in Hong Kong for the past two years. On the fourth day, Kaul says people in the north of India will worship machinery such as their bikes while in the west of the country, it is new year's day.

'We use a lot of firecrackers, eat lots of sweets and pray for wealth and prosperity,' she says. At the Rang Mahal restaurant in Causeway Bay, owner Gagan Sahni and his team will have a special Diwali dinner buffet on offer with savoury and sweet dishes.

The sweets include motichoor laddoo, made with yellow bean flour, milk, nuts and dried fruit, and deep fried in the clarified butter ghee; or kheer, a rice pudding made of milk, sugar, almonds, pistachios, raisins and saffron. 'It's like a thick congee and it can be served hot or chilled,' says Sahni, who opened the restaurant two years ago.

Other popular sweets during Diwali include the kaju burfi, a triangle-shaped bite-sized treat made with milk and cashews.

'This is one of the expensive sweets because of the cashews,' Sahni says. There's also gulab jamun, a round deep-fried doughnut made with milk powder and condensed milk.

'It's a popular home-made sweet. Every Indian household knows how to make this. You make the dough then you deep fry it and soak it in sugar syrup. It is one of the most famous sweets in India.'

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