News / South Africa

Narissa Subramoney
Copy rewriter
4 minute read
3 Nov 2021
11:48 am

Diwali 2021: Here’s what you need to know about the festival of lights

Narissa Subramoney

Diwali is the festival of lights and commemorates Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya after years in exile.

Kids making rangoli decoration at home on festival day. Photo - iStock.

Hindus across the world celebrate their most significant festival of the year, Diwali, on Thursday.

The festival is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists across the globe. Diwali also coincides with the Hindu New Year – and has a rich history attached to it.

Diwali is the festival of lights and commemorates Lord Rama’s return to Ayodhya after years in exile.

Rama and Sita

Diwali 2021
Idols of Hindu deities: From the left: Laxman, Sri Rama and Sita, and Lord Hanuman (bottom left). Picture: iStock.

According to Hindu mythology, Lord Rama, also considered the human incarnate of Lord Vishnu (part of the Hindu holy trinity), was exiled from his kingdom.

Rama was the eldest and favourite son of King Dasaratha of Ayodhya.

Despite Rama’s mother being Dasaratha’s chief wife, the king’s second wife, Kaikeyi, somehow convinced the monarch to banish the rightful heir to the throne in favour of their second son, Bharata.

While in exile, Rama’s wife, Sita, was kidnapped by a demon king, Ravana of Lanka (Sri Lanka as it’s known today).

Diwali 2021
Wall art of Demon king Ravana’s kidnapping of Goddess Sita. Picture: iStock.

It is said that Ravana was seduced by Sita’s beauty and wanted to marry her.

Rama travelled to Lanka with his brother Laxman and Lord Hanuman (who takes the form of a monkey) to rescue his wife.

Sita left a trail of jewellery for Rama to find her.

In this story, with Lord Hanuman’s help, the brothers built a bridge famously known as Ram Setu (Adam’s Bridge) to cross the island to find Sita.

A chain of islands and coral reefs stretches across the southern end of the strait. Most often called Adam’s Bridge, this feature is also called ‘the Bridge of Rama’. Sacred to the Hindu religion, the bridge was said to have been built by Lord Rama, who visited many towns in the region. The shoals are primarily limestone, and the waters in this location are pretty shallow. Some data suggests the ‘bridge’ may be the remnants of an actual land bridge that once stretched between India and Sri Lanka. Picture: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC

When the bridge was completed, Rama fought King Ravana and his allies, Kumbhkaran and Vibhishana.

Rama, his brother Laxman and Lord Hanuman defeated the Lankan forces in a clash, and Lord Rama freed Sita.

Diwali marks the day that Rama made his triumphant return to the kingdom of Ayodhya on a moonless night.

The story says the villagers lit the way back to Ayodhya for Rama and Sita with thousands of glowing oil lamps.

This is why candles, lamps and other forms of light are so widely used to mark the festival.

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Mother and daughter lighting diyas (lamps) for Diwali. Picture: iStock

What goes on in Hindu households on Diwali?

Diwali and Rama’s return as the rightful heir of Ayodhya coincides with the Hindu New Year.

People of Tamil origin include a traditional oil bath as part of Diwali celebrations. In a Tamil home, the day begins with this oil bath. A mixture of three different oils is applied to the body, focusing on chakra points.

This holy bathing tradition is believed to have calming and cleansing effects on the mind, the body and the soul.

Hindus also wear new clothes on Diwali to mark a new beginning.

Traditional sweetmeats and delicious baked goods are shared among communities, friends and family. As dark falls, the celebration of lights begins. Lamps are lit and arranged outside to light up the moonless night.

Fireworks debates and animal anti-cruelty

Golden Temple Amritsar lit by Diya and firecrackers Guru Purab festival and Diwali. Picture: iStock

Fireworks have traditionally been part of Diwali celebrations for thousands of years. But in recent decades, there’s been widespread criticism of the use of fireworks to mark the day.

Every year, irate pet owners have grown increasingly critical of the use of fireworks and their effect on their pets.

Despite calls for a complete ban on fireworks, the South African government is yet to answer this call.

Hindus have argued that fireworks are an integral part of Diwali and say the complaints symbolise deeply embedded cultural and racial intolerance.

Fireworks have been used for thousands of years across cultures as a form of celebration, including on New Years, Guy Fawkes and at sporting events.

It’s anyone’s guess how the raging fireworks debate will affect Diwali and other celebrations in the years to come, but in recent years more Hindus appear to be ditching fireworks as part of the tradition.

However, the use of fireworks remains an integral part of the celebration in more traditional communities.

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