Deepavali, Deepawali or Diwali is the Festival of Lights, symbolising the victory of light over darkness. A joyful celebration that is calculated according to the lunar calendar, it is observed each year by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and some Buddhists.
An International Day of Celebration
Deepavali is an official public holiday in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore and Malaysia. Outside of Asia other countries that also mark Diwali as a public holiday are the island nations of Fiji, Mauritius, and Trinidad and Tobago, plus two South American countries, Guyana and Suriname.
But what about those countries where Diwali is just another day in the official calendar? As the diaspora from the Indian Subcontinent has spread far and wide, so has the Festival of Lights.
The biggest Diwali celebration outside of India takes place in London. The former colonial power of the Indian subcontinent is embracing its multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious legacy from its past.
The 2011, UK census showed the ethnic-minority population from the subcontinent accounted for a combined 4.9% of the total population, the second largest after white Europeans. Those Britons of Indian heritage make up 2.3%, with over a quarter of a million of the London population born in India.
London, Indian Style
In 2017, 35,000 people joined in the Diwali Festival when Trafalgar Square came alive with music, dance, craft and community stalls, including henna art, and, of course, sumptuous food. Chicken tikka masala is, in fact, England’s national dish.
Again, Trafalgar Square, as central as you can get in London, hosts zones for revellers to sample and join in aspects of Indian culture, from Garba dance performance, yoga and meditation to saree and kiddies zones.
This year also has a special centenary ‘Thank You’ zone for those who served in the First World War, including ‘almost 1.5 million Hindu, Sikh and Muslim men [who] volunteered with the Indian Expeditionary Force’.
Even the London Eye lights up in stunning colour, while the outer suburbs of London are not left out. This year Chigwell will enjoy the same joyful light-up thanks to resident Ravi Bhanot, the man responsible for the London Eye light-up.
As Bhanot explains, ‘It is . . . a time when we praise good over evil and think about all of the positive things you want to do in your community.’ The celebrations are organised as an inclusive event for all faiths to enjoy.
North England Celebrations
The Yorkshire cities of Leeds and Bradford also celebrate Diwali in a variety of ways. The various faiths adhere to traditions carried from their ancestral homes, such as cleaning and decorating of their houses in advance of Diwali, placing lamps, candles and twinkle lights inside and outside their homes.
New clothes and feasting are always part of celebrations no matter what one’s background, as are sharing sweets and exchanging gifts.
Temples are lit up as well, being the focal point of religious observances. This year’s Bradford Diwali Switch-On ceremony, organised by the Hindi Cultural Society, took place on 3 October.
The honours were shared by the Lord Mayor of Bradford, Councillor Abid Hussain, the Mayoress of Bradford, Councillor Zafar Ali, and Church of England Bishop of Bradford, Dr Toby Howarth, who switched on the Diwali Lights in the presence of representatives from all the major faiths.
Last year British Prime Minister Theresa May sent out Diwali greetings, stating ‘the festival of lights isn’t just relevant for Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists. It is relevant to all of us, those of all faiths and none. We can all learn from the example set by Lord Rama, whose return from exile is marked by these 5 holy days.’
With Brexit looming as a major break-up with Europe, it is good to know that Britain has put its past behind it, bringing the legacy of light and unity into the present with the sharing of Diwali joy.