The five-day Hindu festival of Diwali – or Deepavali in south India – coincides with the new moon of the Hindu lunisolar calendar’s darkest night. Originally a harvest celebration, the story of the Ramayana saw the festival take on a religious significance, marking Lord Rama’s return home after defeating the demon king Ravana.
One of the major festivals in the South Asian subcontinent (with Sikhs, Jains and Newar Buddhists also holding their festivals on the same occasion) and its diaspora worldwide, Diwali celebrates the symbolic victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil.
The festival’s name – in English accounts from the end of the 1600s – comes from the small clay oil lamps lit for the occasion, via the Hindi “divā lī ”, from the Sanskrit “dīpāvali”, with “dīpa” meaning “lamp”, “light”, “candle”, “that which glows/ shines/illuminates” or “knowledge”, and “ āvali” denoting “a row”, “range” or “series”.
Important Diwali practices include the cleaning of the home and the creation of rangoli – via the Marathi “rãgolī ” from the Sanskrit “ranga” (“colour”) and “ āvali” – the intricate floor decoration at the home’s entrance using coloured flour, rice or sand, and flower petals, to welcome Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity, and bring good luck.
In addition to flowers and animals, typical rangoli motifs include om and the swastika. Despite its deeply negative association with the German Nazi party, the swastika is, in fact, an ancient, sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Odinism. From the Sanskrit “sú” (“good”) and “astí” (“being”), “svastí” means good fortune or well-being; with the diminutive suffix “-ka”, “svastika” is a “little thing associated with well-being”, i.e. something auspicious. The suffix -tika means “mark”, thus an alternate name is shubhtika “good mark”. While there are numerous names for this shape, the word “swastika” has been in use in English since 1871.
Diwali, along with other festivals as well as weddings, sees the adornment of one’s hands and feet with mehndi – the word, in use in English since 1813, is a borrowing from the Sanskrit “mendhikā ” for the henna plant and for the art and practice of applying henna tattoos. The more familiar “henna” is from the Arabic name of the plant hennā , documented in English from 1600 in geographical and travel accounts of North Africa and the Middle East.
Shubh Deepavali! Light and good fortune to all!