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Diwali, the festival of lights, is the most important Hindu festival. Explore all about its history, significance, celebration and date in 2016 and 2017.

Diwali, also known as Deepavali—literally the "festival of lights"—is the most important festival in Hinduism. While the festival preparations and rituals typically extend over a five-day period, the main festival night of Diwali coincides with new moon night of the Hindu lunisolar month Kartika, which falls between mid-October and mid-November in the Gregorian calendar. The festival symbolizes the victory of light over darkness or good over evil and its celebration traditionally includes lighting lamps, candles and lanterns on doorsteps, housetops, temples and buildings. Bursting of firecrackers is also an inherent part of the festivities—the light and sounds from the crackers are believed to scare off evil spirits and contribute to the festive atmosphere. The festival celebrates Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity and Diwali marks a major shopping period in the countries where it is celebrated, especially India. Undoubtedly the biggest festival in India, Diwali is also celebrated with much ardor in countries like Malaysia, Fiji, Guyana, Myanmar,Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago among others. More than just a Hindu festival, Diwali is considered a celebration of South-Asian identity in the West and is celebrated across the USA in a proud manner by the South-Asian diaspora.

History of Diwali
Celebrated since ancient times, Diwali has been mentioned in Sanskrit scriptures such as the Padma Purana and the Skanda Purana and the history of the festival is replete with legends. While the central theme behind the festival signifies the victory of good over evil, the religious significance of Diwali varies widely in regional mythology. In the northern part of India, the festival is celebrated to honor the return of Lord Rama, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana from exile of 14 years after Rama defeated Ravana. In the southern states of the country, the festival is celebrated as the day that Lord Krishna defeated the demon Narakasura, while in the western region Diwali marks the day that Lord Vishnu, the Preserver sent the demon King Bali to rule the netherworld. In some regions of India, the festival is associated with the legend of Yama and Nachiketa. In the west and certain northern parts of India, the festival of Diwali also marks the start of a new Hindu year. While primarily associated with Hinduism, Diwali also has historical significance for certain other religious communities. It marks an important event in Sikhism—the day the sixth Sikh Guru HarGobind freed himself and some Hindu Rajahs from the prison of the Mughal emperor, Jahangir. In Jainism, it marks the nirvana or spiritual awakening of Lord Mahavira in 527 B.C.

Significance of Diwali Festival
Diwali is undoubtedly of great religious and spiritual significance to Hindus and other religious communities like Jains, and Sikhs and some Buddhists that celebrate the festival. The religious significance of Diwali varies regionally within India though the core theme remains the same: victory of good over evil, of right over wrong, and of the light of higher knowledge dispelling all the darkness of ignorance. On this day, people pray to the Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Along with Lakshmi, Lord Ganesha—who symbolizes ethical beginnings and is considered the fearless remover of obstacles—is also venerated. The other gods and goddesses worshiped on the day include Saraswati, who embodies music, literature and learning and Kubera, who symbolizes book-keeping, treasury and wealth management. In the eastern states of India, Goddess Kali is worshipped instead of Lakshmi, and the festival is called Kali Puja. The mythological beliefs and religious practices in various regions of India vary greatly and in Braj and north central regions, people pray to Lord Krishna and celebrate the feast of Govardhan Puja (or Annakoot) wherein 56 different cuisines are prepared and offered to the lord before being shared with the community.

The festival has significant relevance in some other religions too in addition to Hinduism. In Sikhism, it marks BandiChoorh Divas—the day when Guru HarGobind freed himself from imprisonment at the hands of the Mughals—and is celebrated with the annual lighting up of Golden Temple at Amritsar, fireworks and other festivities. It is also an important day for Jains as Mahavira, the last of the Tirthankars, attained nirvana on this day at Pavapuriin 527 BC, on Kartik Krishna Amavasya.Therefore, Jains celebrate Diwali as a day of remembering Mahavira and offerNirvanLadoo after praying to the lord. Some Buddhists, notably the Newar people in Nepal, remember Ashoka's conversion to Buddhism following the Kalinga War and celebrate Diwali by chanting mantras.

The Diwali festivities are spread over a five-day period in many regions of India, with the major celebration centering on the new moon that falls between the end of the Hindu lunar month of Ashvin and the start of the month of Kartika. The preparation for the festival starts days or weeks in advance, and each of the five days has certain rituals and significance.

The Five Days of Diwali Celebrations
Diwali is a festival that spans five days in many regions of India, with Diwali night being the night of the new moon—the darkest night at the end of the Hindu lunar month of Ashvin and the start of the month of Kartika. The preparations for the festival begin days or weeks in advance, with the formal festivities starting two days before the night of Diwali, and ending two days thereafter. Each of the five days of Diwali has its own rituals and significance.

Dhanteras (Day 1)
The first day of the festivities is celebrated as Dhanteras in northern and western part of India. This day marks the birthday of Lakshmi—the Goddess of Wealthand Prosperity, and the birthday of Dhanvantari—the God of Health and Healing, and is thus considered an auspicious occasion. Lord Kubera, the God of assets and wealth is also worshipped on this day. It is a major shopping day, especially for articles made of precious metals like gold or silver. Rangoli designs are drawn on pathways including the goddess' footprints to mark the arrival of Lakshmi, and shops and work places are decorated, symbolizing them as a source of sustenance and prosperity. In villages, cattle are adorned and worshiped by farmers as they form the main source of their income. While in general, sweets and fruits are offered to Goddess Lakshmi in most Indian states, there is a peculiar custom in Maharashtra to lightly pound dry coriander seeds with jaggery as an offering to the goddess.

Naraka Chaturdashi (Day 2)
Naraka Chaturdashi, also called Choti Diwali, marks Day 2 of the celebrations. According to Hindu literature, the demon Narakasura was killed on this day by Krishna or his consort Satyabhama. Some legends also state that the demon was killed by Kali. In some regions of India, the day is also known as Kali Chaudas and is allotted to the worship of Mahakali or Shakti. Rituals typically start early in the morning, with people in many regions taking a special oil bath before performing minor pujas. The puja is performed with oil, flowers, and sandalwood. Lord Hanuman is also worshipped on this day and is offered coconuts and prasad made of sesame seeds, jaggery, rice flakes and ghee. In Goa, effigies of Narakasura are burnt while in Tamil Nadu some people observe "nombu" and do Lakshmi Puja on this day.

Lakshmi Puja (Day 3)
The third day, the day of the Lakshmi Puja, is the main festive day. People light lamps, candles, and lanterns, and offer prayers to Goddess Lakshmi, Lord Ganesha, GoddessSaraswati, and Kubera. Goddess Lakshmi, who symbolizes wealth and prosperity, is believed to roam the earth on Diwali night. The most auspicious time for the puja is decided when amavasyatithi prevails during pradoshkaal or the evening time. Mothers, who are seen as an embodiment of the goddess, are revered on this day. This is also an important day for socializing, and people visit their friends and relatives and exchange gifts. In the region of Bengal, Northeast Bihar, and Assam, this day is celebrated as Kali Puja and Goddess Kali is worshipped at night with Tantric rites and mantras. Offerings of red hibiscus flowers, animal blood in a skull, sweets, rice and lentils, fish and meat is made to Kali and ritualistic slaughter of animals is also made to appease her. In the Kalighat Temple in Kolkata and in Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati, Kali is worshipped as Lakshmi on this day.

Padwa or Balipratipada (Day 4)
The day after Diwali is celebrated as Padwa or Balipratipada, and it marks the beginning of the VikramSamvat calendar in Western India and is considered the New Year Day in Gujarat. According to Hindu mythology, Bali Padwa commemorates the victory of God Vishnu in his dwarf incarnation Vamana, defeating Bali, and pushing him to the netherworld. The celebrations of the day vary according to regions. A common practice in north India is to play the gambling game called pachikalu (dice game), which is linked to a legend associated with Lord Shiva. North Indians also celebrate the day as Govardhan Puja. In southern India, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, people perform Kedargaurivratam (worship of goddess Kedar-Gauri), Gopuja (worship of cow), and Gouramma puja (worship of Gauri). The day also honors the love and mutual devotion between husband and wife, and couples exchange gifts to show their dedication to each other.

Bhai Duj or Bhaiya Dooji (Day 5)
The final day of the festivities marks BhaiDuj (Brother's second) in India or Bhai Tika in Nepal. The festival celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters. According to Hindu mythology, after slaying Narkasura, Lord Krishna visited his sister Subhadra who gave him a warm welcome with sweets and flowers. This is believed to be the origin of the festival. In some regions, the day is known as Yamadwitheya or Yamadvitiya, after a legendary meeting between Yama the god of Death and his sister Yamuna (the famous river) on Dwitheya (the second day after new moon). Girls and women perform a puja for the well-being of their brothers which is followed by the ritualistic exchange of gifts and food-sharing.

Diwali Date Calendar
2016: October 31 (Sunday)
2017: October 19 (Thursday)
2018: November 7 (Wednesday)
2019: October 27 (Sunday)
2020: November 14 (Saturday)