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India is known for a myriad of colorful festivals. However, very few are as joyous as Diwali or Deepavali (row of lighted lamps). Also called the Festival of Lights, the ancient holiday that extends across many cultures and beliefs is celebrated for five days and is one of the most anticipated and eagerly awaited of all Indian celebrations.
As is the case with most Asian festivals, the date is determined by the lunar calendar. Hence, it differs annually. This year's celebrations will begin in earnest on November 9th with Dhanteras. The name is derived from the words "wealth" (dhan) and "thirteenth" (teras), the day of the lunar month it falls on.
On this day, devotees pay homage to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. In addition to conducting elaborate prayers, residents and businesses also use the occasion to clean and redecorate homes and offices. However, the most fun ritual of the day is to go shopping. Those that can afford to, make their way to the jewelers to purchase gold and silver ornaments. Others, settle for colorful clothes and utensils, which are also considered auspicious.
The second day of the festival is known as Kali Chaudas or Narak Chaturdashi. For non-believers, it is just a day to prepare for Diwali, that falls the day after. However, many celebrate it by "cleansing" their homes of demons and bad spirits by performing some traditional rituals.
While these celebrations are fun, it is the third day that people look forward to the most since it is finally Diwali! Most people begin the day with a visit to their local place of worship. For the Hindus and Jains, that means going to the closest temple, while the Sikhs head over to the gurdwaras. Following the prayers, friends and families visit each other and exchange gifts and Indian sweets. Those that miss the opportunity to buy gold on Dhanteras, make up for it, by visiting the jewelers on this equally auspicious day.
Once the sun sets, families light up the homes with diyas, (small oil lamps) before settling down for a scrumptious feast. Then begins the fun fireworks display. However, unlike in the U.S. and most other parts of the world, this does not mean watching a show orchestrated by experts. In India, everyone gets to create his/her own fireworks show. While young kids stick to safe sparklers, teens and adults spend their energy igniting bigger and louder fireworks. The colorful celebration continues late into the night until every last cracker has exploded.
There are numerous myths associated with the origin of this fun festival. Among the most popular is that the day was first celebrated to welcome back King Rama of Ayodhya, his wife Sita and brother Laksmana from a 14-year-long exile imposed by the king's mother.
Another traditional folklore attributes it to a goddess named Kali. According to the legend, the deity was so unhappy with the deterioration of the human society, that she made it her mission to wipe out every living creature on earth. It was only when her husband, Lord Shiva intercepted, that she came to her senses and stopped the unnecessary slayings. Though the tales associated with the festival's origin may differ, they all have one common theme - celebrating the triumph of good over evil.
For a subsection of Hindus, Diwali also marks the end of the calendar year. On Thursday, November 12th, they will celebrate the first day of the year 2072. They are 57 years ahead of the internationally accepted Gregorian calendar because it is calculated using the shorter lunar cycles. The fifth and final day of the festival honors the bond between brothers and sisters and is celebrated with more yummy food and prayers.
Though the festival is special for Hindu kids all over the world, it is even more so for those living in India. That's because, in addition to a week's vacation from school, they also receive gifts, attend parties, eat delicious meals and best of all, get to play with fireworks!