Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Deepavali –New Year for Indians? 屠妖节

Published in 《源》,the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations, February 2015, No. 113

In Singapore and Malaysia, Deepavali is the grandest festival celebrated by our Indian compatriots. Deepavali also knowns as Diwali or Festival of Lights and usually falls in October or November. It is a public holiday in places such as Singapore, Malaysia, India, Nepal, Fiji and the Caribbean.

Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia commonly acknowledge Deepavali as "Indians New Year". On the contrary, Deepavali does not signify beginning of a Hindu New Year which falls on 13th or 14th April. However, Deepavali is celebrated as the most important occasion in Indian culture just like Chinese New Year. 

(Lighting up Little India)

Apart from Hindus, Deepavali is also celebrated by Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists in Nepal to mark different historical events or myths. However, they all symbolise the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair.

The origin of Deepavali is a legend that comes with a deep, enriching tale. In ancient times, India had a savage king called Narakasura. The masses had to live a terrible life under Narakasura’s rule. Soon after, Lord Krishna came to the mortal world and beheaded the evil ruler. The masses rejoiced by lighting up oil lamps, glorifying the notion that evil will not win over justice.

Another legend comes from India's most famous ancient epics "Ramayana". This heroic story presents Rama's battle against the demon king Ravana in order to rescue his wife.

The other legend embodies a tale of Lakshmi's emergence as a goddess of wealth and prosperity. Deepavali hence not only signifies justice prevailing over evil, but is also a day for celebrating the Goddess of wealth.

Interestingly enough, there are two gods of fortune and wealth in the Hindus’ legend: Lakshmi and Ganesha. Ganesha is the son of the primary Hindu God Shiva and has an elephant head. Hindus worshipping Lakshmi and Ganesha during Deepavali just like the Chinese praying to the God of wealth during the lunar New Year.

Gathering for family reunion breakfast and lunch is the tradition of Deepavali. On the day of Deepavali, Hindus wake up before the crack of dawn and bath themselves in sesame oil. Lit oil lamps, fresh flowers and new clothes are essential to usher in good luck and fortune for the family. New clothes are smeared with turmeric powder according to tradition.

Indian culture also views filial piety and paying respect to parents and elders with high regard. During reunion breakfast, the younger generations must bow to their elders to receive their blessings and gifts. Visitors must also do likewise to the elders.

One month prior to Deepavali, Hindus are already scouring for food and gifts. Goldsmith shops are filled with jewelleries and crowded with buyers. Hindus also decorate their houses. Their doorways are hung with beautiful flowers as well as pictures of the various deities. The floors are decorated with kolams made from flower petals, crayon paintings or coloured rice. The fire from the oil lamps sway with the night breeze as a delightful added feature.

A sumptuous meal is a necessity for every household on the actual day. Every family would be busy preparing snacks such as Athirasam, Jelebi, Laddu, Gulab Jamun and Mysore Pak. It is customary to have dessert before consuming proper meals during dinner. Desserts are served on either banana leaves or plates as a starter. It signifies a sweet and auspicious new beginning.

(Sumptuous snacks. Photo source: YUAN)

During the festival, the males will don a Jippa (robe) and a matching pair of pants while females will wear a traditional Sari with vibrant colours or a Punjabi Suit. Young girls typically wear a Pavadi (dress). Just like the Chinese, Indians would not wear black clothing during Deepavali.

One month prior to Deepavali in Singapore, Little India will be lit up to exude a strong festive atmosphere. Hindu temples will also organise activities such as ceremonies of chanting and worshipping of various deities, and shows consisting of Indian classical dancing and singing. 

(Classical Indian dance. Photo source:LISHA)

A few days before and after Deepavali, Hindu temples will conduct sacrificial ceremonies whereby women sincerely fill their plates with offerings and slowly make their way into the main halls of the temples. They will close their eyes, clasp their hands together and pray to the deities in silence. Priests will then dab the worshippers' foreheads with lime and cinnabar and then give them some divine water and objects of sacrifice. Worshippers will then feel purified and blessed with good fortune.

Indians also pay respects to their ancestors albeit doing it three to five days prior to Deepavali. This frees their time from having too many activities on the day of celebration.

Hindus adopt cremation and have two options of dealing with the ashes: to disperse the ashes into the sea or to bury the ashes into the ground. If the ashes are buried, apart from worshipping at home, the family also has to visit the graveyards.

Conversely, if the ashes are dispersed into the sea, the photos of the ancestors will be arranged together at home during worshipping. The family members will read out the ancestor names, inviting them to accept the offerings. Younger generations will take turn to pay their respects with joss sticks. Next, they will turn anticlockwise thrice with camphor lamp chips on their hands (while praying to deities, one is supposed to turn clockwise thrice). Finally, the worshippers will kneel down and pay their respects after smearing their foreheads with incense ashes.

The night of Deepavali is probably the most anticipated time for children. They will set off fireworks, filling the usually quiet night sky with laughter of joy. Even though firecrackers are prohibited in Singapore, children are still able to have fun and share the special occasion with each other.

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