The oldest Hindu festival which falls in the month of Kartik. It also marks the beginning of the Hindu new year. Diwali or Deepawali, literally means ‘an array of lamps’, is the festival of lights and is celebrated on the darkest night of Kartik.

In North India and Bihar, two days before Diwali is Dhanteras in honour of Dhanvantari, the physician of the gods. He is believed to have emerged with a pot of amrita during the samudra manthan. On Dhanteras, new kitchen utensils are bought and kept at the place of worship. The buying of utensils, relates to the myth of Dhanvantari emerging from the ocean with a pot in his hand.

Tiny footprints made out of rice paste are a special feature of the rangolis made for Diwali. They signify the footprints of Lakshmi, as she enters the house. In Hindu homes, Diwali celebrations involve a ritual puja to Lakshmi and also to Rama in the evening. After the puja, the diyas (lamps) are placed in and around the house: in the doorway, near the Tulsi plant, the backyard, every room and the back and front gates.

Since Diwali falls on the new moon night, lamps are lit to brighten this moonless night. According to myth, Lakshmi will not enter a dark house. The lamps also welcome home the spirits of dead ancestors, who are believed to visit on this auspicious night. In addition, the light frightens away any evil spirit that might be wandering about near the house on this night.

The origin of Diwali can be traced back to ancient India, when it was probably an important harvesting season. It was thus extremely important to the largely pastoral Vaishya community. Their granaries were full, and the weather was good, at the end of the long monsoon and before the arduous winter. It was therefore a good time to celebrate. The Vaishya community began their new year with this happy occasion, after paying their debts and clearing their ledgers. As the religion developed, various mythological stories and explanations were attributed to this festival to give it religious sanction.

Diwali is celebrated in honour of Rama, his consort Sita and brother Lakshmana, returning to their kingdom Ayodhya after a 14-year exile. To celebrate this event, the residents of Ayodhya are believed to have lit their homes with lamps. The illuminations also symbolise the removal of spiritual darkness and the onset of happiness and prosperity.

According to another belief, it is on this day that Lakshmi emerged from the ocean during the samudra manthan. Lakshmi Puja commemorates her birth and therefore forms a major part of Diwali celebrations. Being associated with the goddess of wealth and fortune, Diwali is specially important to the Vaishya business community. Most tradesmen close their old ledgers and dealings and start afresh. With the emphasis on money, it is also considered lucky for gambling – giving social sanction to a vice.

Another reason for the celebration of Diwali is that it marks the killing of the evil Narkasura at the hands of Krishna. Naraka is believed to have abducted 16,000 women. Krishna killed him and rescued the women whom he later married. Naraka is the personification of hell and is believed to be the monsoon season during which activities come to a near standstill.

In South India, the story widely associated with Diwali is that of Narasimha, the man-lion incarnation of Vishnu. According to legend, Hiranyakshipu was an evil demon king. He was unjust and cruel to his people. However, he was almost invincible, having extracted a boon from Brahma that he would not be killed either by beast or man, either inside or outside, during the day nor at night. When his atrocities became unbearable, the gods sought Vishnu’s help. Assuming his fifth incarnation of Narasimha, Vishnu killed Hiranyakshipu with his claws in the courtyard just before day break, steering clear of the boundaries of the boon.

In West Bengal, Kali Puja is performed on Diwali as it is believed that on this day Kali killed the wicked Raktavija.

The second day after Diwali is Bhai Duja when sisters apply tilak to their brothers and pray for their long and happy life. This ritual was originally intended for married women. Since they celebrated Diwali with their in-laws, Bhai Duja allowed them to go over to their parents’ home. They got time to meet the family and relax after the hectic activity of the preceding Diwali week. Nowadays Bhai Duja is observed by both married and unmarried sisters.