Diwali 101: Your Guide to India's Festival of Lights

Learn all about what is considered India's most important holiday.
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What It Is: Diwali is a five-day festival of lights that marks the triumph of good over evil and is considered India's most important holiday. Typically, Diwali takes place between mid-October and mid-December, depending on the lunar calendar.

Who Celebrates It: Although Diwali is the most important holiday in Hinduism, this festival is also celebrated by Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains all over Southeast Asia, particularly in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

The History: Diwali has a rich, if somewhat complicated, backstory. It began as a harvest festival marking the last harvest of the year. Farmers would give thanks for the years and harvests behind them. Now, many Indian businesses use the first day of Diwali to mark the end of the fiscal year.

The second day of the festival celebrates the killing of the demon Narakasura by Lord Krishna and his wife. The third day celebrates the generosity of the goddess Lakshmi and her willingness to grant her followers' wishes. The fourth day remembers the god Bali, who was sent to rule the lower realms of the universe. On the fifth day, referred to as Yama Dvitiya, sisters invite their brothers into their homes for a large feast.

Common Traditions:
On the first day of Diwali, Hindus consider it lucky to clean house and shop for gold and silverware; on the second day, people decorate their homes with clay lamps covered in colored sand.

Diwali is a festive time of year marked by decorations adorning homes and public streets. Some of the most popular decorations are the paper lantern, candles, lights and elaborate fireworks displays.

Because India is such a large country, several regional variations have developed around Diwali. In Karnataka, family members gather for a three-day celebration that includes lighting firecrackers, decorating the house extensively with flowers, and building a fort-like entrance to their homes out of dung and sandalwood. The new entrance is meant to entice Bali into their homes. Residents of Kerala make effigies of Narakasura, fill them with firecrackers, and later burn them.

Diwali Around the World
Diwali is celebrated by Hindus across southeast Asia, the south Pacific, the Caribbean, Europe and North America. As the Indian diaspora has spread across the globe, Diwali has melded with different traditions. Non-Indians often join in Diwali celebrations in New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Barack Obama became the first U.S. President to attend a White House Diwali celebration.

Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.

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