Diwali 2016: 8 little-known Deepavali folklore and festivities

From Naraka and Roop chaturdashis to Tulsi lagan and clans that worship Ravana, there is much about Diwali celebrations you may not have heard of.

Written by Swasti Pachauri | New Delhi | Updated: November 1, 2016 11:52 am
Diwali, the festival of light is associated with good triumphing over evil. (Source: Thinkstock Images) Diwali, the festival of light is associated with good triumphing over evil. (Source: Thinkstock Images)

Colourful rangolis from Gujarat. Mud art from Rajasthan. Terracotta earthen lamps from barren deserts. Marigolds from central India. Ashoka leaves from the tree next door. Harvest of rice and sugar cane puddings. Lanterns in the sky or ‘kandeels’ from Odisha. The nip in the air gripping most parts of the country at the moment is beaming of cultural radiance, geographical diversity and religious symbolism. All these assortments exist with one aim — to mark the festivities of Diwali. Differently.

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While the Opera House in Sydney will illuminate in gold this year to mark Diwali beams, Tihar in Nepal (the Nepalese name for the festival) is already seeing floral diplomacy in marigold with bordering Indian states. A different celebration engulfs the northeastern state of Sikkim, with no firecrackers to ease noise pollution. It is, thus, an established fact that diverse Diwali celebrations over time have paved way for inclusion of regional variations, diversity and traditional practices that have evolved and been accommodated overtime. While some observe these rituals, committed to ancient philosophies and customs, many others are increasingly tolerant to societies around.

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Coexistence of modernity and tradition is therefore the order of the day. While we believe in freedom of choice to celebrate festivals the way we like, it is indeed fascinating to glimpse through a potpourri of traditional stories, folklore, beliefs and legends that render Diwali festivities their ‘symbolism’. These lesser-known beliefs and practices symbolise a cultural amalgamation and evolution of ethos from time to time, while also contributing to a rich repository of intangible heritage, emanating in mythology, tradition and, more recently, paving the way toward an increased sense of urban consciousness.

Here’s a quick look at this coexistence of tradition and modernity. Of folklore and consumerism binaries that celebrate luminosity over darkness, good over evil and a balance of tradition and environmentalism for some.

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1) Demon for some, Lord for others: This is where King Ravana is adored and revered
Bisrakh, a village located in the hustle bustle of Noida is considered King Ravana’s native, his birthplace, according to local beliefs and references. When most parts of the country burn 10-headed effigies of the demon king commemorating binaries of evil versus the good, a small rustic village called Bisrakh in Uttar Pradesh instead, mourns over the King’s demise. According to existing reportage, those interested in watching Ramleela influenced by areas around, escape to suburbs, highlighting how social cohesion and influence are more important than societal beliefs to gen-next, making aspirations and integration in the larger milieu, more relevant than adherence to age old beliefs.

Similar legends emanate from the Vidisha district in Madhya Pradesh, where Ravana is celebrated. People in Mandsaur express their devotion to the demon king, owing to his intellect, a testimony to which is the tall statue of the king.

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2) For the Gond tribe, paying homage to Ravana is preserving their cultural legacy and indigenous identity
The Gond tribe inhabit most of central India. In fact, this year on Dussera, Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra saw Gonds demanding the practice of effigy burning to end so as to preserve their ancient traditional knowledge and belief system. The king is prayed to as ‘Gade Raja’ an ancient deity revered by the tribal collective.

3) Dhanteras is actually a tribute to abundance of Ayurveda
While people mark the occasion of Dhanteras by purchasing gold, silver or steel utensils, little is known about the origins of Dhanteras as a festival. Legend has it that the day is observed to extend worship to the ‘ancient physician’ or Lord ‘Dhanvantri’ traditionally associated with Ayurvedic knowledge. No wonder then that southern regions in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are dotted with temples dedicated to Lord Dhanvantri, corroborating to their geographical advantage and legacy in ancient medicine, biodiversity and Ayurvedic practices. It is no surprise, thus, that ‘prasadam’ here is made of herb concoctions and flowers. Culturally in north India Lakshmi Pooja is done on this day, the thirteenth day of the lunar calendar with diyas (earthen lamps), marigold flowers and vermillion.

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It is interesting to note that while most of urban India is suddenly conscious to promote principles of ecology and environment for an eco-friendly and pollution-free Diwali, mythical legends reveal to us that deeper ties with nature and environmental reverence existed before.

4) Did you know ‘Chhoti Diwali’ was traditionally coined as ‘Naraka Chaturdashi’?
The festival is associated with good triumphing over evil resonated by traditional stories that recount Lord Krishna defeating Narakasur (god of death). Different parts of the country mark this day according to regional customs and beliefs. For instance, in Goa, Naraka Chaturdashi is celebrated as Dussera, with burning effigies of Narkasur. In north India, prayers are offered to Goddess Lakshmi, while in West Bengal, this day is venerated by offering prayers to Goddess Kali. Religiously it is also associated with Lord Hanuman and mark festivities related to agricultural harvest especially rice. Many light diyas or lamps made of wheat flour.

An interesting facet of celebrating the harvest season could be related to yield of kharif (winter) crops at this time of the year, such as sugarcane and paddy, delicacies of which are used in several forms, such as ‘kheel’ (puffed rice), batashe (sugar candies).

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5) ‘Roop Chaturdashi’, another name for Chhoti Diwali, signifying usage of natural resources
If traditional origins of Diwali were to be believed, natural resources formed the very essence of these customs. ‘Roop (beauty) Chaudas’ or Chaturdashi – a day after Dhanteras – is observed traditionally with usage of fragrant oils, besan ubtan (gram flour scrubs), sandalwood, kumkum (vermillion), haldi (turmeric), mehendi (heena) and flowers. Celebrated a day after Dhanteras, people use Marigold flowers, Mango or Ashoka tree leaves to prepare for Roop Chaturdashi, according to local narratives in central and western India.

Household spaces, especially main entrance doors, are decorated with ‘geru’ (red soil), lime. Wall art and Rangolis made of red and white paints are found often during Diwali in hinterlands.

6) Flower power of ‘genda phool’ (marigolds): Horticulture at the heart of cultural festivities
It is known that households in rural India grow vegetables, fruits and flowers in whatever little space they manage to find. When Diwali is around the corner, backyards, farms and verandahs are dotted with beautiful orange and yellow marigold blooms. Marigolds are, in fact, a must ingredient in prayers and offerings. Women also use these bright happy orange beauties for rangoli decoration, wall hangings and décor.

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While marigolds have their own cultural and religious significance, these flowers also contribute to livelihoods and ethics of organic farming with marigolds dotting the heartlands of India this time of the year.

7) Mountain of sweets and grains, Govardhan pooja – a day after Diwali
Also known as ‘Annakut’, this is commemorated on fourth day of Diwali. Mythologically, the day is observed in remembrance of Lord Krishna when he protected the entire region of Vrindavan from the wrath of showers by resisting an entire hill of ‘Govardhan’. In reverence, prayers are offered to mounds of food grains, jaggery and sweets.

8) It is ‘Gyaras’ or ‘Tulsi Lagan’ that marks beginning of the ‘marathon wedding season’ in North India
Performed on the eleventh or twelfth lunar day after Amavasya (Diwali), Ekadashi, Gyaras or Tulsi Vivah is celebrated with much illumination of earthen lamps and fireworks — mainly observed in remote districts and villages of Madhya Pradesh. Tulsi or basil as we know is an important herb, but more than that it is valued for its cultural and religious representation. On the occasion of Gyaras, the much venerated Tulsi is married to Lord Vishnu, making it very auspicious for weddings. Decorated with flowers, rangolis and designs made of lime and red soil, the propitious ‘mandaps’ are made by placing sugarcanes around the plant, followed by tying the plant and cane with red strings or ‘Kalava’. Once done, the winter wedding season begins.

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So, whichever way you choose to celebrate Diwali, beliefs and traditions show the myriad choices one has in the ‘glo-cal’ culture that we form today, exuding of cultural diversity that integrates the country. Here’s a safe, sweet, green and vibrant Diwali to all!

Swasti Pachauri is a social sector professional, formerly working as a Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh.