When our days start with little giggles of small girls making gharonda, women decorating the entrances of our houses with the most colourful rangolis and the hustle and bustle of others cleaning the house to the last dust particle, we know that Diwali has come. The miniature, make-believe mud houses that we see nowadays, being made back in our hometowns, all decked up with diyas, flowers, gulaal, colourful cardboard and anything that was once going to be discarded, make our concrete highrises seem shabby and without life.
Diwali means different things to different people all over the Indian mainland - young children in the Northern Belt often accompany their fathers to their family shops or factories or offices to set up idols of Lakshmi and Ganesh to attract wealth and prosperity in their workplace. Further east, in West Bengal, the prodeep awaits the arrival of Maa Kali- deity of death and destruction and also a mother to many. Down south, the Abhyang Snan, a holy bath, results in painstaking preparations for the same in almost every household.
Interpretations of Diwali
There are various alterations in the origin stories or the reason behind these festivals depending upon the region we are focusing on. In the north, Dhanteras marks the beginning of the five day festival of lights. Devi Lakshmi and Lord Ganesh are worshipped with hopes of these deities of opulence staying in the house. It is also a day which witnesses a huge buying of new material objects signifying affluence in the material world. Lights brighten up even the darkest of lanes to ward off evil spirits from the house and the streets.
A similar ritual is followed in West Bengal on the second day of the festival, on Bhoot Chaturdashi. A specific dish containing fourteen types of saag is prepared while the house is lit with fourteen earthen lamps. This signifies the banishing of Alokkhi (failure) from the household and welcoming Maa Kali the next day. This is a festival of worshipping a ferocious avatar of Maa Durga responsible for killing the demon Raktabij. Read our story on Bhoot Chaturdashi here.
Kali Pujo was also a puja where blood sacrifices were required for the longest time. Sources say that only a couple of centuries ago, Erstwhile Bengal was notorious for Naraboli (human sacrifice) at certain places to appease the goddess. A few decades ago, that was reduced to sacrificing goats, which would make for a delicious kosha mangsho later that day as Maa’s prasad. This is a festival which mainly stands for the destruction of evil, darkness and unhappiness and emancipation of the people through light.
A different name is given to this festival in the South- Narak Chaturdashi, where Lord Krishna and Devi Satyabhama are worshipped for killing Narakasur. An elaborate ritual of applying a paste of sesame oil, herbs, flour and turmeric marks the beginning of this auspicious day. The paste is washed off in the Abhyang snan which protects the followers of this from misfortune and poverty. The observers of this ritual then apply kajal to ward off the evil eye.
The contrast of the purpose and rituals of Diwali across the country was a step towards giving it a sociological context. The comparative method of research in sociology deals with the questions of whether one should focus on the differences or the similarities of two objects being compared. Andre Beteille, claims that we should consider both since that would help us to have interesting insights on the subject.
The long and tedious description of the rituals and the backstory of the festival in different regions of the country displayed how one festival can have a plethora of interpretations and meanings attached to it. Somewhere the motive for the festival is to garner material affluence and mental peace while elsewhere it stands for the destruction of evil and all hurdles that may plague human life. Despite the differences, one underlying belief remains constant- the role of a mother goddess in destroying evil and liberating human life from the grasps of darkness. It is what ties people from different regions in the same thread of union.
Even though we worship the mother Goddess Kali during this time, with her dark skin and long locks, skulls around her neck on her bare body, and feet on Shiva’s bosom, we still have not been able to free our minds from the clasps of patriarchy and give our women the same respect we give Kali’s idols. On the other hand, while we engage in occult practices during Kali Chaudas, we are still victims of the caste system that percolates to the lowest levels of our highly stratified society.
The question that should haunt us in the shimmery lights of Deepavali is whether we have been able to really reach the common goal of rising above the darkness and establish a sense of togetherness, solidarity, unison and an expression of self.
The views expressed are the author's own.