Diwali means lighting up the sky with fireworks for some; for others it is a time for contemplation, to find the light within. While believers around the world ignite diyas on the festival of lights, each community has its own rituals of celebration. Here are four Diwali traditions from across India.
In honour of Kartika Poornima (the full moon 15 days after Diwali), the ghats of Varanasi are all lit up. This “Diwali of the Gods” has pilgrims from across the world camping by the river Ganga. In the morning, devotees take a dip in the river. Diyas are lit along the banks in the evening to welcome the gods and mark their descent on earth. Pandits chant Vedic mantras and light massive lamps for the Maha Ganga Aarti. The Ganga Mahotsav, held for five days before Dev Diwali, attracts hordes of tourists with its spectacular glowing riverbanks.
While most Hindus celebrate Lakshmi Puja on the Amavasya (new moon) day of Diwali, the faithful in West Bengal and Assam worship Kali, goddess of power and destruction. Legend has it that Kali was born to rescue heaven and earth from the rising evil of the demons. To celebrate her success in eliminating the demons, she strung their heads around her neck – but along the way, she lost all control and began killing everything in her path. To stop her, Shiva threw himself under her feet, resulting in her sticking her tongue out in shock, regaining control and repenting. The puja commemorates this event, to seek the help of the goddess in destroying evil – both in the world and within.
Like most Hindu traditions, the tales at the root of this event are varied. According to one, Narakasura – once a god – grew addicted to his power and turned evil, kidnapping and mistreating women. Krishna was asked to intervene and the resulting battle had him beheading Narakasura, whose last request was that his death be celebrated every year. For the occasion, the people of Goa make paper effigies of Narakasura, stuffed with fireworks and combustibles like grass and hay, which are set ablaze at around 4a.m., symbolizing that good eventually triumphs.
While Nag Panchami is celebrated in many parts of India in August, Telugu families worship the snake-god Nagadevata during Diwali. In certain regions in the state, women visit snake pits, perform pujas and offer naivedyam (milk, dry fruits, and other foods that are presented to the gods before consuming). Women fast through the day until the puja is done. In other regions, idols of Nagadevata are brought home and pujas are held. The ritual also serves as a reminder to respect and honour Nature.
Fabiola Monteiro was formerly a member of National Geographic Traveller India's digital team. Since then, her words have featured in The Hindu, Mint Lounge, Roads & Kingdoms, The Goya Journal, and Condé Nast Traveller India. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro and is on Instagram @fabiolamonteiro.
Surabhi Thakker was Art intern with National Geographic Traveller India. She's always been in love with wildlife and nature and is passionate about graphic design and travel. She enjoys both illustration and photography.