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By Louise Tellamteacher and freelance writer

Find out all you need to know about Divali, one of the most important festivals for the Hindu and Sikh faiths

What is Divali?

Divali is an important time of year for Hindus and Sikhs. It is the Indian festival of Light which takes place on 1 November 2005. In India it is a national holiday which usually lasts for five days. The word Divali comes from the Sanskrit word, ‘Deepavali’, which means ‘clusters of lights’ – a characteristic of all the celebrations. The underlying theme of all the stories that form a basis to the festival of Divali is the battle between good and evil and the ultimate triumph of good.

Why it Divali celebrated?

The celebration falls on the last day of the last month of the year according to the Indian calendar and marks the beginning of the new year as reflected in some traditions.

For many Hindus, Divali lasts for three days and is preceded by the ten day festival of Dusshera. Throughout this time, the epic story of the Ramayana is retold. The story concludes with the triumphant return of Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu, and his queen, Sita, to their kingdom, welcomed by many lights. Hindus illuminate their homes to invite Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, to bless them throughout the coming year.

To many Bengalis, this festival is known as Kali Puja. The goddess, Kali, is the fearsome wife of Lord Shiva. With her power over evil spirits, and as avenger of enemies, she is represented by terrifying images often dripping with blood and wearing garlands of skulls. However, her benevolent side is that of the great Mother, kind and fiercely protective of those she cares for. Devotees seek to be blessed by this aspect of the goddess. Many lights are lit to frighten away evil.

For Sikhs, Divali is one of two annual festivals that remember Amar Das, the third guru to be introduced. It is the anniversary of the release from captivity by the Emperor Jehangir, of the sixth guru, Guru Hargobind Rai. The Guru refused to leave prison without 52 fellow prisoners, insisting that just as all are equal in the sight of God, so he should not receive preferential treatment and all had equal right to freedom. Lights welcomed the Guru home to the city of Amritsar and to the Golden Temple, establishing a tradition that continues to this day.

Main features of Divali

  • For both Hindus and Sikhs, Divali is a major celebration within the community. The use of light during the festival is central to welcome that which is good into the home and community, and to symbolise the triumph of good over evil.
  • Traditional stories remembered at this time include the epic story of Rama and Sita told from the Ramayana, stories about the goddess Lakshmi and, for Sikhs, the story of Guru Hargobind’s release from imprisonment by the Emperor Jehangir.

Top facts

For Hindus, Rama is God. Divali is the culmination of Dussehra and is known as the festival of Light by Sikhs and Hindus. For Sikhs, issues of equality and the importance of freedom are central.

The stories used at this festival are about good overcoming evil.

Who celebrates Divali?

Hindus and Sikhs celebrate the festival at home, and in the mandir and gurdwara respectively. This is a time for communities to come together, and for Sikhs, it affirms them as a brotherhood which is an essential element of their faith.

Useful resources

  • Divali and Holi by Meg Jones (Festival Fun for the Early Years series, Scholastic).
  • Assembly Stories from Around the World by William Dargue (Oxford University Press).
  • Handbook for Religious Education (Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council) – available from CSO Design and Print, Room B31, Council House, Birmingham B1 1BB. Tel: 0121 303 0064.
  • Selection of books and artefacts available from Religion in Evidence. Visit Religious in Evidence or tel 0800 318686.

How is Divali celebrated?

Drama plays a key role in Hindu celebrations. Presentations of the Ramayana stories are retold throughout India and acted out in the mandir by children using dolls and puppets. They culminate with parades through the streets that end with a mock battle and the burning of huge effigies of the Demon King Ravana. The battle between Rama and Ravana represents the eternal battle between good and evil. In preparations for Divali, prayers are said, and houses are cleaned and made spotless to welcome Lakshmi. Some houses are repainted and floors scrubbed ready to make welcoming Rangoli patterns with coloured rice and spices.

As darkness falls, people pray to invite Lakshmi, and the characteristic diva lamps, which are sometimes coloured and carefully decorated, are lit. All sorts of lights are used so the homes are aglow in the dark night. In India, the sky is lit up with fireworks. Hindus worship at home and there are community prayers and celebrations at the mandir. Families come together to share traditional foods and sweets and to exchange cards and gifts.

There are similar sorts of celebrations in Sikh homes. Children often have new clothes and look forward to giving and receiving cards and presents. It is an important time to go to the gurdwara and share food. The kitchens or ‘langha’ at the gurdwara always offer hospitality to anyone seeking food, but this is a celebratory meal that unites the community.