Think again if you believed Diwali is only five-days starting with Dhanteras two days before Laxmi Pujan and ending with Bhai Dooj two days later. For several communities it could be 20-day long. Festivities begin 9 days earlier for many traditionalists in north India, with Karva Chauth. Ahoi Ashtami follows four days later. While the moon sighting indicates breaking of the fast in Karva Chauth, the stars do so in Ahoi Ashtami.
Four days later, on Govatsa Dwadashi in the north or Vasu Baras in traditional Maharashtrian houses, it’s time to honour cows and calves. The cows are given roti or other wheat products, and devotees abstain from wheat and milk products throughout the day.
The next day is Dhanteras, followed by Chhoti Diwali /Narak Chaturdashi and Diwali or Lakshmi Puja. The day following Diwali is known as Govardhan Puja in the north, Samvat or New Year by the business community, who start fresh with new accounting books, and Bali Pratipada in portions of South India and Maharashtra. The last of the five-day festivals is Bhai Dooj, or the celebration of brothers.
Three days later comes Labh Panchami to welcome good luck and wealth. Chatth Puja is conducted the following day. Later that week is Jagaddhatri Puja, celebrated in Bengal. The festivities end on the 12th day following Diwali, with Tulsi Vivah.
On Narak Chaturdashi, Maharashtrian households are alive with activity from 4 am, when family matriarchs summon children for the Abhyanga Snan (multicourse bath). The jar in which the bath water is heated is adorned. Each member of the family receives a ritual massage with perfumed oil made the day before with rose, hibiscus, curry leaves, and cumin cooked in oil and filtered. Scented soaps add to the festive charm. A scrub called utthna (prepared with a tablespoon of sandalwood, wild turmeric, khus, dried rose petals, dried orange peel, Multani mitti, nagarmotha, bawachi, besan, and gawla (kachri) is also used to exfoliate dead skin. The karit fruit (cucumis) is crushed after the bath by pressing it under the toe. This represents a metaphor for ending negativity. Its seeds are then placed to the head, followed by a drop of the bitter juice on the tongue. Women then perform aarti for those who’ve showered.
Mother of all appetisers
In addition to the traditional bath, Iyer and Iyengar households make a special Diwali paste. They soak and ground a teaspoon of carom seeds, cumin, black pepper, long pepper, fenugreek seeds, calamus, haradh, and turmeric into a fine paste with a hint of cardamom and nutmeg. This paste is mixed with a little ball of molten jaggery to make the Deepavali legiyam, which is a necessity for anyone exiting the ritual bath. Apart from acting as a natural appetiser for the inevitable seasonal binge eating, the paste strengthens the body’s immunity as winter approaches.
Goddess of Dark
While Diwali and Lakshmi Puja are celebrated across the country, in the east — West Bengal, Odisha, and Assam — they trail Durga Puja. The day is designated for Kali Puja. Worshipped in the dark, Kali Puja happens at midnight on amavasya, a night as dark as the goddess. Kali’s immersion, must also happen before the first ray of the sun. During Kali Puja, several devotees also offer bhang to the goddess. “When a devotee smokes or consumes it, her or his darkness and depression dissipate in smoke,” explains Gobindo Das, a priest in the Kalighat temple. Weed is also regarded as prasad. Many Kali devotees are tantriks/aghoris who consume consume this in a kalash along with sweets, flowers and other offerings.
The goddess of wealth occupies a special place in the hearts of Sindhis who came to India during Partition. It is believed that it is she who blessed them with hard work, ingenuity, and strong entrepreneurial talents. So, for Diwali, or Diyari as the Sindhis say, they get out their gold and silver pieces and properly polish them before performing the puja. During the puja, these coins and other standard monetary coins are immersed in raw milk. In preparation for the aarti, the milk bowl is placed in a hatdi (a decorative plate with three sticks) along with offerings of sweets and lai (a type of chikki), and a diya made of wheat dough is lit. After the pooja sweets are distributed.
Baskets of bounty
The Thakars were original inhabitants of what were once rich Sahyadri foothills in Maharashtra’s Thane and Palghar districts. Folk music, dance, and songs are such an important part of their cultural legacy. Diwali marks the arrival of the rice from the previous year’s monsoon crop, which is stored in six-seven-foot-high wicker baskets coated with cowdung from the inside and outside. These baskets are lined on elevated logs (to keep moisture out), painted with an ochre mud paste, and readied for Diwali when the community dances around them to the accompaniment of drums.