Diwali is the festival of light, and easily one of the biggest celebrations of the year in India. It celebrates the triumph of good versus evil, and it is essentially the Indian Christmas, or in some parts of India, the new year. It’s 5 days, starting on the 5th of November. I had nearly a month off of school, starting at the end of October, and took the time to celebrate, catch up on sleep, explore Pune, and spend time with my wonderful host family. It is celebrated differently all over India, so I’ll just catalogue my experience with the Maharashtra Diwali.
To kick off my Diwali break, I traveled to Hyderabad via a 14 hour train ride. The purpose of the trip was for a learning seminar with GCY, so my time in the city was brief, but long enough to notice some major differences with my home in Pune. First of all, the population is nearly 3x bigger, at 11 million people, and it’s definitely noticeable with all the extra traffic there. Around the evening of the first day, as the sun was setting, I heard a chorus of voices raising up to the sky. I learned this was the Call to Prayer, and can be heard 5 times a day in Hyderabad with its major Muslim population.
On the third day, we made our way into the city. I noticed all the Telugu signs (the language in Hyderabad, though Hindi is also used), as well as the visual differences, such as mosques poking out to the sky, and the conservative style of dress. Pune is considered a college ‘town,’ with all its universities, so its full of young people wearing mostly western clothes. We traveled to the old city part of Hyderabad, and definitely stood out among the older crowd of burqa and hijab donned women. The architecture is also unique, and the arches all over the old city are beautiful. The streets are lined with jewelry and pearl stores (a Hyderabad specialty), and I may have gotten roped into buying a necklace. There is so much of this cosmopolitan city I didn’t get the chance to explore, so I know I’ll be back!
Back in Pune, I was invited to a Diwali celebration by a local expat club. It was a lot of fun to learn about the celebration, get all dressed up, and eat some amazing Indian food. I also got my first henna tattoo! It was great to meet other people new to Pune and share our experiences!
In Hindi class, we painted diyas, which are little candle holders special to Diwali, and learned about the different days of the celebration. The first day is the day of fortune, and a lot of buying is done on this day, as well as cleaning and taking care of your possessions. In my house, we did a top to bottom clean, and prepared some Diwali decorations. I also went to an art workshop where I made a lantern, painted some more diyas, and tried some rangoli (sand art). I took a walk that evening to admire all the Diwali decorations people put up. The streets were filled with light, from lanterns, candles, and fairy lights, and the decorations ranged from a basic lantern, to color changing lights draped over the entire home.
Day 2 of Diwali, the day of knowledge, was the 6th of November, and also my birthday! On this day, we have to wake up, shower, and start the day before sunrise, otherwise we’ll be doomed to hell, as my host dad eloquently put it. It is also meant to be a day of rest, but we made a little exception and had a birthday party. I went out to buy a cake, and the man accidentally wrote ‘Happy 90,’ instead of ’19,’ which I found hilarious. I reigned in my year, surrounded by a bounty of new friends and family, and I honestly wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Day 3 of Diwali, the day of light, is the main event. We spent the day preparing the diyas, cutting the marigolds, and I watched my host mom and aunt create some beautiful rangoli art on the floor. By the time the evening rolled around, our house was filled with light and color, and I was dressed in a traditional sari loaned by my host mom. We spent nearly three hours photographing the scene and family, getting every angle and pose possible, before starting pooja. Pooja is the traditional prayer to the gods, and in this case we gave offerings to Lord Ganesh and Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Afterwards, we filled our stomachs with delicious Indian food and sweets, such as laddu, a sweet round ball, or barfi, a milk sweet that comes in tons of flavors. Firecrackers and fireworks had been going off the whole week, but they were especially vibrant and loud on this day, and can be seen well from our balcony! We had to provide a little extra comfort to our dogs though, who were a bit spooked by it all.
The next day is a celebration of togetherness for husbands and wives. We went on a little hike to Parvati Hill, a hilltop temple, and I got a pack of iconic Pune postcards (more on that in next blog!). That night we got dressed up again, I was in a choli this time (skirt and blouse), and I watched and photographed the festivities. My host mom performed aukshan, which is waving a lit lamp, to my host dad, and then she was presented with a little gift. This ritual is done to celebrate the love and togetherness between a husband and wife. After, we took even more photos (festival of light or festival of photos? You tell me!), and my host mom joked that with all these new shots we could find me a husband before next year’s Diwali! It is marriage season afterall! I politely declined, but I do hope I get to attend an Indian wedding this year!
The last day of Diwali is a celebration of siblings. Sisters perform aukshan on their brothers, and gifts are given. Our dog Dorji received a stuffed toy, which was promptly destroyed before the day’s end. Even as Diwali winded down, firecrackers could still be heard for days to come, and much like Christmas, the decorations stayed.
I loved having the chance to learn about and celebrate Diwali with my host family. Even with all the gorgeous clothes and glowing decorations, it really is a celebration of connection and family, and I truly felt welcomed to be a part of it. Keeping an open mind and heart really helped me make the most of my long break and festivities, and I can’t wait to go back to my students in school next week, refreshed and ready!