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Dewali (Divali, Deepavali, Festival of Lights)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: October-November; last two days of the Hindu lunar month of Asvina and first two days of Kartika
Where Celebrated: India, Malaysia, Mauritius, Nepal, and by Hindus throughout Asia
Symbols and Customs: Games of Chance, Good Luck Designs, Lamps
Related Holidays: Tihar


Dewali is the most widely observed holiday in the Hindu tradition, which many scholars regard as the oldest living religion. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent.

Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita.

The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day-to-day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, but they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

The word Dewali is a corruption of the Sanskrit word Deepawali, which means "a row of lights." Also known as the Festival of Lights, Dewali is observed primarily in honor of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. In northern India, it is believed that this is the time of year when Lakshmi returns from her summer home in the country. The special oil LAMPS that line the rooftops and windowsills of Hindu homes during the four-day festival are put there to help her find her way.

Because it is the most widely observed Hindu holiday, a number of legends concerning its origin have clustered around Dewali, and Hindus everywhere can find something in it to celebrate. It marks the beginning of the New Year for Hindus in northern India, where people whitewash their houses and businesses, open new account books, and pray for success and prosperity in the coming year. Even the poor put on new clothes, and employers sometimes buy clothes for their workers. In other parts of India, Dewali celebrates the destruction of a demon named Naraka by the god Vishnu. This demon might originally have symbolized the monsoon that floods a good part of the country, and Dewali marks the end of the monsoon season. In any case, Dewali celebrations often include burning effigies of Naraka.

In Bengal, Dewali is dedicated to the worship of Kali, the goddess of strength. Spectacular images of the goddess are decorated and worshipped before being immersed in a river, sea, or sacred tank. In Maharashtra, Dewali is a festival to ward off King Bali, the ruler of the underworld. In the Punjab and Mauritius, Dewali celebrates the coronation of Rama (a manifestation of Vishnu) after his conquest of Ravana, the ruler of Sri Lanka who had stolen his wife. The Jains commemorate the death of their religion's founder, Mahavira, on Deva Dewali, the tenth day after the Hindu Dewali (see MAHAVIRA JAYANTI). The Sikhs-a Hindu religious sect -regard this holiday as a time to celebrate the freeing of their Guru Hargobind Sahib by the Mughal emperor. In Nepal, it is called TIHAR, a multiple holiday that celebrates the New Year and Lakshmi.

Dewali is as important to Hindus as CHRISTMAS is to Christians. In fact, there is a modern custom of sending greeting cards wishing friends and relatives a "Happy Dewali and a Prosperous New Year." It is a time for showing charity toward others and for making a fresh start at the beginning of the New Year.


Games of Chance

Gambling on Dewali is a traditional activity, certain to bring good luck. According to Hindu legend, the god Shiva played a game of chance with his wife, Parvati, Dewali

and lost everything. When his son, Kartik, saw how depressed his father was over his losses, he was determined to win back his father's money and reconcile his parents. He studied the art of throwing dice, went to his mother and challenged her to a game, and ended up regaining his father's lost wealth. Now it was his mother who became melancholy. She taught her other son, Ganesh, how to throw dice, and Ganesh defeated Kartik. Deciding that the entire business had gone far enough, Shiva sent Ganesh to bring his mother back home. Instead, Ganesh found her gambling with Narad and Ravana. Vishnu-who, along with Shiva, is one of the two most powerful Hindu gods-had taken the form of a pair of dice and caused Parvati to lose everything. She was about to curse Vishnu for cheating her when Ganesh intervened. Instead, she pronounced a blessing upon all those who play with dice on the first day of Kartika, assuring them that they will be successful in all of their dealings throughout the year.

Good Luck Designs

In some parts of India and Malaysia, families draw elaborate designs called alpanas on the floors of their homes near the front door to welcome Lakshmi. These good luck designs are made from a special rice flour, symbolic of abundance and welcome. The flour may be left white or mixed with dry pigments to form different colors. The design is usually abstract or incorporates a traditional folk motif like the paisley. Some cities hold competitions to see who can make the most beautiful alpana.


The most outstanding feature of Dewali is the constant illumination by lamps, bonfires, and fireworks. People line their houses, courtyards, roofs, and gardens with oil-filled earthen lamps (called dipas), candles, or electric bulbs. Some buildings even use neon lights. But even where electric lights are used, it is customary to leave an open lamp of burnt clay filled with ghee or clarified butter burning throughout the night at the nearest place of worship so that Lakshmi will feel welcome and will be able to find her way home.

The custom of burning lamps originated with the Vaishnavas-those who worship Vishnu as the supreme god and who observe Dewali in honor of the coronation of Rama, the greatest of India's hero-kings and the seventh incarnation of Vishnu. On the night of the coronation, it is said that the entire countryside was illuminated by lights to symbolize Rama's role in leading the world from darkness to light.

In Bengal, Dewali lights take the form of lit torches held on long poles. Here it is believed that Dewali marks the beginning of the night of the Pitris (souls of the departed ancestors), and the torches are intended to guide them. The best illuminations can be seen in Bombay and in Amritsar, where the famous Golden Temple is lit in the evening with thousands of glittering lamps placed along the steps of the huge tank or sacred pool.


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BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Hindustan Times Dewali
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Dewali (Divali, Deepavali, Festival of Lights)

October-November; 15th day of waning half of Hindu month of Kartika
The word dewali means 'a row or cluster of lights', and the week-long festivities are illuminated by lamps, fireworks, and bonfires. The holiday means different things in different parts of Asia. In northern India it marks the beginning of the Hindu New Year. In Gujarat and Malaysia, families clean and whitewash their homes and draw elaborate designs (called alpanas ) on their floors with colored powder to welcome Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. Then they set up rows of little clay lamps, decorating their courtyards, windows, and roofs with light in the belief that Lakshmi won't bless a home that isn't lit up to greet her.
In the Punjab and Mauritius, Dewali celebrates the coronation of Rama (an incarnation of Vishnu) after his conquest of Ravana, the ruler of Sri Lanka, who had stolen his wife. In West Bengal it is a Kali festival. In Maharashtra the lights fend off King Bali, the ruler of the underworld. The Jains commemorate the death of their great hero, Mahavira, on this day, called Deva Dewali, in the city of Pava in Bihar. In Nepal it is Tihar, a multi-holiday that celebrates the New Year and Lakshmi, sisters honor brothers, and mandalas are prepared for each member of the family.
Dewali is as important to Hindus as Christmas is to Christians. It is celebrated by the world's 500 million Hindus with gift exchanges, fireworks, and festive (typically vegetarian) meals.
Ministry of Tourism, Government of India
Rm. No 123, Transport Bhawan, No. 1, Parliament St.
New Delhi, Delhi 110 001 India
91-11-23715084; fax: 91-11-23715084
BkFest-1937, p. 161
BkHolWrld-1986, Nov 1
EncyRel-1987, vol. 4, p. 374
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 425
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 620
GdWrldFest-1985, p. 110
RelHolCal-2004, pp. 179, 195
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
The Jains, Sikhs and many Buddhists share the Hindu festival of Dewali. The ancient Druid religion, Wicca, marked the time by Samhain, which coupled a harvest celebration with the Celtic New Year.
On Tuesday, the lower house of the Parliament adopted a resolution to take steps for declaring Holi, Dewali and Easter as holidays for minorities.
Her funeral prayers will be held today at Cavalry Ground and her body will be taken to Faisalabad for burial at her ancestral village Chak 4, Ram Dewali.
Khali Ismail Dewali, aged 37, of Hillfields House, Yardley Street, Hillfields, Coventry, driving with an incorrect licence and using a vehicle without insurance, fined pounds 260.
RAWALPINDI -- Chairman Tehreek Jawanan Pakistan, Mohammad Abdullah Hamid Gul has congratulated Dewali Hindu community of Pakistan.
PESHAWAR -- Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Senior Minister for Irrigation, Sikandar Khan Sherpao has congratulated Hindu community on the eve of "Dewali" and said that all the minorities are free to follow their religion as enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan.
Khattu Mal Jeevan has directed Director Minority Affairs Department, Sadiq Rajar that financial assistance should be provided to widows, needy and disable persons of Hindu community from the funds allocated under head financial assistance before Dewali, so that they can celebrate with joy the Dewali Festival.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was on a day long visit of the city to witness the Sea Spark exercises of the Pakistan Navy, attended an event to observe the Hindu religious festival, Dewali, where he said Its my duty to protect a person faced with injustices no matter to which religion or sect he belongs.
He said that Hindu employees have been given Festive allowance Rs 3000 at Dewali and Rs 5000 to Christian employees.
occasions of Holi, Dewali and Easter as public holidays for Minorities permanently.