October 16, 2013

Diwali..Down the Memory Lane

Its October, my most favorite month of the year, since my childhood. I grew up in a small town called Gwalior, an extremely hot and arid place. October marks a change in season, a prolonged and difficult summer comes to an end by this time of the year and evenings become pleasantly cooler. It brings the festive season which would be a much welcome time in otherwise staid life of my childhood years, around 30 years back. It also helps that it is my birth month. Today I will go down the memory lane, and tell you, how as a child I would enjoy the days leading up to Deepawali, the most beautiful festival of light, commonly known as Diwali.

Hindu festivals follow the Hindu lunar calendar and so fall on varying dates on Gregorian calendar. Deepawali can fall anywhere between mid October to mid November, mostly early November. Deepawali, the festival of light, I believe is the undisputable king of festivals, for its beauty, fun and the wonderful buildup of minor festivals and yearly activities that finally culminate into Deepawali day. About 6 weeks before Deepawali a period of “inauspicious” gets started for 2 weeks, called “Pitra-Paksha”. Hindus remember their ancestors during this period and as a child it would make a mark as people do not eat meat during this time, nor is it considered good to start or buy anything new. This quiet period ends with the start of Navaratri  period of 9 days/night where each day is for one form of Goddess or Shakti(the personification of Energy). My mother would fast during these days and I would enjoy all the special goodies she would make for fasting days. Different people set different difficulty level for their fasting and my mother set a moderate level, which suited me even better. The tenth day, the day after Navaratri period ends, is Dussehra or Vijaya Dashmi. Traditionally, during these days the neighborhood would have Ramalila shows. To give you some context on Ramalila, Dussehra is the celebration of Lord Ram’s slaying of the Daemon King Ravana, after a fierce battle of 10 days. When Lord Rama who was Vishnu’s incarnation as prince of Ayodhya, returned home after 14 years of exile, after slaying Ravana, the people of Ayodhya celebrated the homecoming of their beloved prince by decorating the city with earthen lamps, called “Deepam”. This became a tradition and gets celebrated as Deepawali, string of lights, every year. As a child I thought this story was just too awesome. Now the “Ramalila” I mentioned earlier is a folk theatre, depicting episodes from Ram’s very dramatic life and battle with Ravana. Ramalilas were organized all over, by various neighborhoods, sometimes competing for the “best” judged. These were not professional organizations, but just a bunch of neighborhood enthusiasts who would come together, collect money from neighborhood, and organize Ramalila shows for few days, and more or less everybody who participated would be from the neighborhood. Every evening children would start gathering around dusk time where the stage was made, playing, saving place to sit for their families who would join later. As the evening progressed into the night, all would come and sit, and the show would start. This was huge for us as kids as movies and t.v. entertainment was not as pervasive as it is today, and theatre going was unheard of in middle class living. It was a magical  experience to stay out so late in the night, crispy air, under the star filled dark skies, watching the fascinating stories in Ramalila. The final show would happen on the Dussehra day, which invariably depicted the episode of how Rama slayed Ravana on his own land “Lanka”. Thus the Good would prevail over Evil.

The day of Dussehra was much awaited. There would be a big carnival on Dussehra day, where amongst other exciting things, huge, like very huge, effigies would be made of Ravana and two of his daemon brothers. Ravana’s effigy would have 10 heads, that’s how it is mentioned in the mythology. These effigies would be filled with thousands of fire crackers.  My father’s sister would visit us every year with her sons, my cousins, and my father will take all of us kids to the carnival, called “Mela” in Hindi. At the end of Ramlila, Lord Rama would send three fire headed arrows from his bow towards these effigies, and one by one they will catch fire and effigies would start burning in large flames and all the crackers would start blowing, making loud, very loud noise that will go on for many minutes continuously. Oh how we loved this, the exciting smell of crackers mixing in the cool nippy air of October end. Big bangs to mark the arrival of most beautiful season of cultural landscape in India. 2 weeks to go for Deepawali.

In the 2 weeks leading to Deepawali, yearly deep cleaning of the house was to be done. It’s a good time for deep cleaning as the monsoons and the season of mold, fungus and insects is over by this time. The houses would get painted completely or partially where needed. Schools would get closed for at least a week for the festival time. That by itself brings a lot of happiness. Somewhere between Dussehra and Diwali days, a group of neighborhood kids would start coming after dusk, with their “Tesu and Jhanji” dolls, a couple from Mahabharata mythology. I don’t know the story behind them, but the kids would collect money to arrange their wedding. What makes it unforgettable is that the Jhanji, the bride to be, was depicted as a perforated clay pot, with lovely decorations, having a Deepam lighted inside it. They would put this pot on ground and rotate it in circles, like a rotating top, and the light coming out from the perforations would make such lovely dancing patterns on the ground in the surrounding darkness, and they would sing a funny folk song that I could never understand over the years, but can never forget either, even after so many years.  And “Tesu” interestingly was depicted as a toy with large eyes and big mustache  attached to a tripod like structure made of three reeds, standing on ground next to the dancing Jhanji, passively looking at all this.

As the Diwali day would approach, there would be an increase of activities at home. Mom would start making a variety of sweets and savories for Diwali. Friends and family would drop in to meet for Diwali and exchange these home-made sweets and savories. We would decorate our house with paper lanterns, flower garlands, and hang mango leaf garlands on the doors to welcome all. About eleven days from Diwali, is a festival called Karva-Chauth where married women fast for the longevity of their husbands. Mother would fast sometimes and not others, depending on whether dad was good or annoyed her the previous day. Fasting on Karva Chauth ends with a sumptuous dinner, that she will make either way, so I would look forward to it.  I also helped her make the traditional motifs on wall, for Karva Chauth puja decorations, using rice water as white paint. The day long fast can end only when the lady gets a sight of the nascent moon late in the evening. It’s the job of kids to find the rising moon the earliest possible, so I and father would climb up the terrace and anything that will give him a better view, to sight the rising moon for mother. Many times the night would be cloudy and it will get very difficult to sight it, for mother to be able to end fasting, so we would make do by looking in the direction where we thought the moon would be behind the fluffy clouds.

Three days before Diwali is “Dhan Teras” – the official shopping day for Diwali. Markets on Dhan Teras would be all decked up in decorations and shops are bustling with stuff. The whole town seemed to be on those roads that day and shops would not have an inch of empty space, there will be either people or stuff everywhere. These were the days of traditional shops when market would mean rows of smaller shops along a main road, and the various by-lanes around it. We would buy new clothes, and some utensils for kitchen. Buying metal utensils for kitchen, or precious metals, gold or silver, is a tradition for Dhan Teras. These were the times when even getting new clothes was truly exciting as people didn’t buy “stuff” all the time, like today. Later in the evening we would do Lakshmi Puja, as Dhan Teras is the festival of wealth; “Dhan” means wealth, and “Teras” means 13th day of a lunar fortnight.

Next day, that is a day before Diwali, is called “Annakuta”, or Narak Chaudas.  A heap of food and grains from fresh harvests is made and done puja upon, the heap represents a mythical hill Govardhana related to Lord Krishna. During the day time, all those who provide some house hold service through out the year, like maids, driver, handy-man, school-rickshaw-man, security guard, street sweeper, gardener, post-man etc, would come home, and mother would give Diwali sweets and bonuses to them, along with grains from the “Govardhana” heap. We  would go for fire cracker shopping with father. Oh it would be so exciting to choose from the multitudes of large shops selling an un-ending variety of firecrackers. I would buy a whole lot of fire crackers of all kinds. We would also buy the clay diyas, the little earthen lamps. Later in the evening mother would do a short puja and I and my father would put few diyas at certain spots in the house, like main gate, entry way, kitchen, tulsi plant, courtyard and so on. The beautiful flickering light from these little diyas was supposed to send the evil away from our home and bring the auspicious in. And I would go to sleep excited about the next day.

Diwali day. A day of heightened activity. I and my father worked like a team, decorating house with flowers and strings of electric light, putting fire crackers in sun to dry them up nicely, making little wicks out of cotton for the diyas, cleaning and decorating the little home temple, mother working in the kitchen at an industrial level to get the festive dinner ready for the evening. I and my father would put little diyas all over the house, on boundary walls, stairs, niches, doors, parapets, window sills…and hope that there would be no breeze that evening. All through the day there would be occasional sound of firecrackers coming from here and there. As the evening would fall, we would get ready in our new clothes, mother would do puja for Laxmi, the Goddess of Prosperity, and Ganesh, the Lord of Auspicious. By the time our Puja ended the fire cracker sounds coming from outside would have increased to a full crescendo. I would be getting impatient on how long the puja has to go while others have already started  fire crackers. At the end of Puja we would alight all diyas earlier placed everywhere in the house, from the main Deepam used in Puja. By this time mostly all houses have lit up their diyas and it would look so amazingly beautiful. And then we would start firing all the crackers and other fire works. That would go on for couple of hours. Sometimes, some family/friends will come over with their stock of fire crackers and then we would enjoy it together. And I loved the smell of fire crackers laid heavily in the cool November air.  With high atmospheric pressure of the on setting winter season, the gray smoke and smells from fire crackers just stayed close to ground, the ground would gradually get covered with marks and paper shreds from the fire crackers and the air outside would become cooler and cooler as the evening progressed. Oh those would definitely be the most awesome hours in the whole year. Once our fire crackers stock would get exhausted, we would return inside to attack on the most delicious Diwali dinner. The sound of fire crackers outside would go on deep into the night as I would go to sleep with the wonderful smell of crackers surrounding me.

The day next to Diwali would still be a holiday so we would get a day to recover from too much of merry, and come to the real life of waking up early for school from the next day.


  1. Awesome :)
    I am from UP....and have very vivid memories of Tesu....was googling for Tesu origins adjourned article came up :)


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