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Deepavali across India: An example of unity in diversity

Deepavali across India: An example of unity in diversity


“So, wait, is it Deepavali or Diwali?” One of our curious friends from the States gives us a quizzical look. I, the current author of this particular post, frown a little as I think. “Well”, I reply cautiously, “both are correct. Deepavali is the original Sanskrit term and is quite common in South India. Diwali, on the other hand, is derived from the term “deepavali”, and is more common in the northern part of the country.” 


“Ah, so it’s either Deepavali or Diwali.” Our friend seems satisfied. However, their question sends me straight to the world’s favourite search engine. Why? Because I wasn’t exactly sure whether those two were, in fact, the only terms; and I was right to be uncertain. Not only did I uncover yet another term for the festival of light, I also learnt a lot more on how this festival, much like Vijaydashami, is celebrated in a variety of ways across India. 



Deepavali is celebrated for a period of 4 to 5 days throughout the subcontinent, with the third day being the most important one across regions. The darkest of all nights during this period, this is the day that people celebrate the vanquishing of evil and the victory of all that is good by lighting clay lamps or diyas. This is where the festival, deepavali”, gets its name (deepavali means “row of lights” in Sanskrit). The fifth day, too, is similar for all parts of the nation, with it being marked as bhai dooj, bhai phonta, or bhai tika.


In terms of celebrations, people across regions gather with family to feast, laugh, and bond.



South India


Most states in South India celebrate the defeat of Narakasura on deepavali. Naraka Chaturdasi is the main day of the festival in this part of India and precedes amavasai or amavasya. Celebrated in the Tamil month of aipasi, the dates coincide with the rest of the nation. Washing and cleaning of homes is part of the rituals and kolam designs often grace the entrances of homes. A day before Narak Chaturdashi, ovens are cleaned, smeared in lime, and adorned with religious symbols. Water is then filled and kept in the oven and this is used during the oil bath the next day. Sweets, feasts, and new clothes are indulged in only after the bath. 


Oil baths are a  common ritual across states. In Tamil Nadu, the celebrants bathe at or before dawn with oil that is infused with betel leaves, pepper etc. prior to consuming deepavali lehiyam, a tonic. 


In Karnataka, oil baths are taken on the first day of the festival. This day is known as Ashwija Krishna Chaturdashi. The reason for the oil bath in this state is the popular belief that Lord Krishna took such a bath to remove the bloodstains after killing Narakasura. Bali Padyami is the other important day of this festival. It falls on the third day and coincides with Lakshmi puja. On this day, people narrate tales of King Bali and create forts made of cow dung. 


In Andhra Pradesh, there is yet another tale - it is believed that Satyabhama, Lord Krishna’s consort (wife) is the one who defeated the demon and, as a result, homage is usually paid to her in the form of clay idols. Harikatha is also often staged across the state. 


An intriguing part of the celebrations in the southern states is the observance of Thalai Deepavali. This is when newly married couples visit the bride’s parents at their home. 


East India



The third day of Deepavali is celebrated as Kali Pujo here. The celebrations take place late at night and the Goddess’ victory over evil is captured in the numerous pandals that grace the streets of the eastern states. The Goddess is presented with hibiscus flowers, fish, and meat. In Bengal, homes are decorated with the feet of Goddess Lakshmi during Lakshmi Puja, which takes place 6 days after Durga Puja and coincides with Kali Puja. The Goddess’ feet are drawn with rice powder mixed with water and are usually tiny. Doors are often left open and lamps are lit because it is believed that Goddess Lakshmi does not enter a dark room. However, it is Kali Pujo rather than Lakshmi Pujo that holds more sway in Bengal during this time.


In Odisha and parts of rural Bengal, the third day is also the day people pay tribute to their ancestors, also known as pitripurush. It is believed that lighting diyas on long poles or sticks will help guide their spirits to heaven. The fifth day, which celebrates siblings and cousins, is known as bhai phonta.


North-East India




Here, the festival of lights is not referred to by either of its two popular names. Instead, it goes by Tihar. The most fascinating aspect of the rituals here is that the north-eastern states of India primarily celebrate nature and her creatures during at least three of these five days. Here we will only touch upon Sikkim for now.


On the first day, in Sikkim, people seek to appease crows, which are considered to be a symbol of sadness and sorrow. Known as “Kaag Tihar”, this day is celebrated by offering sweets to the crows in the hopes that this will protect people from death and grief. 


The second day, “Kukkad Tihar”  is set aside for the celebration of dogs, an integral animal in Hindu mythology as they are considered to be loyal companions. They are fed meat and fish, garlanded, and worshipped. 


The third day, the most important day in several parts of India, is spent in the worship of the cow, which signifies prosperity and wealth, and in Laxmi puja. Referred to as “Gai Tihar”, it involves garlanding cows and feeding them grass.  Panchdeep, sacred threads, tikas, and vegetables are also common during the worship process . “Deusi and Bhailo” folk songs are a magnificent accompaniment to the festivities and make for an engaging experience.  The fourth and fifth day are similar to that of the rest of India - Govardhan puja and bhai tika.


North India




The victory of Rama over Raavan is widely celebrated as Diwali in North India. The third day, which is Diwali, marks the return of Rama after his victory. Since it was the darkest night, the subjects are said to have lit earthen lamps to illuminate his path as he re-entered Ayodhya with Sita and Lakshman. Homes were also lit in celebration.


Gambling on the night of Diwali is said to be auspicious and is practised in most northern states. Rangolis and diyas abound in most homes and Lakshmi Puja is performed at night for prosperity. In Varanasi, earthen lamps are set afloat on the River Ganga with priests chanting on the banks of the river.


West India




In West India, especially Gujarat, Dhanteras, the first day of Deepavali, is celebrated in a big way. In Gujarat, women apply kajal made from the flames of the diyas the day after Diwali. This is believed to attract good fortune. Gujaratis consider Diwali to be the start of a new year and create rangolis the day before to ring it in, in a big way. Like some parts of East India, Gujaratis also draw Goddess Lakshmi’s feet on the night of Diwali to welcome prosperity. New business deals and property transactions are usually carried out during this period, particularly on the third day. 


In Maharashtra, the first day is celebrated as Vasubaras. This is  before the first day of the usual Deepavali celebrations. On this day, Maharashtrians celebrate the love between mother and child by doing an aarti of a cow and her calf or calves. Dhanteras, which is the second day, is celebrated much like it is in Gujarat and other places in India. Naraka Chaturdashi, which is the third day for Maharashtrians and the second day for other regions, sees celebrants bathing in scented oil, much like their South Indian counterparts. This is followed by a temple visit and then a feast that consists of sweets and spicy edibles. This is known as Faral.  The fourth day, the main day, is Lakshmi Puja, and the Goddess and the many forms of wealth are worshipped. 


Across religions and borders

During my hours of searching, apart from the regional differences, I was also surprised to find that other religions celebrate Deepavali. Jains celebrate Deepavali as the day Lord Mahavira achieved nirvana; for Sikhs, it is the day Guru Hargobind was released from captivity. The festival also transcends borders - it is popular in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Fiji, Thailand, Mauritius, Australia and Canada; and it is apparently one of the days when soldiers on both sides - India and Pakistan - lay down their arms and exchange sweets.


It is undeniable that India’s strength has always been somewhat dependent on the presence of diversity, be it in culture, tradition, religion, language, music, or cuisine. Deepavali, much like Dussehra or Vijay Dashami, brings to the fore that the nation has one beating heart, but countless joyous ways to show its love. 


How do you celebrate deepavali? We would love to learn more about traditions, old and new, from people across the country.

Note: We have not covered all states and/or rituals due to lack of consistent information regarding their celebrations and because of the length of this post. 

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