Known as the festival of lights, Diwali is celebrated all over the world across various religions and cultures, especially in South Asia.
Diwali is observed differently by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists, creating a rich tapestry of cultural traditions and customs.
“Diwali/Deepavali has long been a cultural holiday where people get together, have parties, give gifts to each other and generally pray for a prosperous future. For some communities, the day after Diwali also marks the beginning of the new year,” says Deven Patel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s South Asia Studies department.
The dates change each year because they are based on the Hindu lunar calendar, but it typically happens in October and November. This year, Diwali will be on Thursday, Nov. 4. The festivals and celebrations usually last for several days.
Diwali in the time of COVID
While Diwali is typically a joyous occasion heralding new beginnings, this particular year will be different.
“There has been so much devastation with COVID. I don’t think there is any family that has been untouched by COVID,” says Inni Kaur, creative director at the Sikh Research Institute.
First detected in October 2020, the deadlier and highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus ravaged India in the past year. In April and May, the country’s health system collapsed under a severe spike in cases that caught the government unprepared and led to mass fatalities.
“When we have a death in the family, these types of celebrations are not celebrated with exuberance,” Kaur points out. “We have a year of mourning in most cultures and in most homes. So it’s going to be a subdued celebration.”
However, vaccinations have made a difference in how people might celebrate as opposed to last year, points out Mat McDermott, senior director of communications for the Hindu American Foundation.
“Now that hopefully everyone eligible for a vaccine has gotten one, COVID shouldn’t change celebrations as much as was the case in 2020. For people going to their nearest temple for a puja, people will follow whatever local appropriate COVID restrictions and precautions are in place,” McDermott says.
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How do people celebrate?
The literal translation of Deepavali is “a row of lamps and lights.”
People will often line candles and lamps throughout their house and along their driveway to illuminate their surroundings. They might also buy colorful new clothes or host gatherings of friends and family to celebrate together.
For Hindus, Diwali is a time for dana (charitable giving) and seva (selfless service), and according to the Hindu American Foundation, Hindus traditionally perform a deep cleaning of their homes and surroundings, as cleanliness is believed to invoke the presence and blessings of deities related to wealth and prosperity.
Hindus also celebrate with colorful patterns of flowers, powder, rice or sand on the floor, an artistic practice called rangoli meant to bring good luck, says the Hindu American Foundation.
For Sikhs, Diwali celebrates sixth Guru, who serves as a source of inspiration and a symbol for freedom, according to Kaur. The guru was in prison and refused to leave prison without the other 52 political prisoners being released. The day of Diwali celebrates his release from him, along with the other political prisoners he fought for, says Kaur.
“The inspiration is to stand with the oppressed. It’s not about your freedom. It is about the freedom of everyone,” Kaur says.
Kaur says the Sikhs celebrate Diwali as a holiday to serve others and help the oppressed, similar to how the sixth Guru helped the other political prisoners. It’s a holiday for people to reflect what they are grateful for and how they can shine light on others as well, Kaur says.
Kaur encourages people to honor Diwali by thinking, “What are you going to do to make that light shine the brightest in you?”
Some sweet recipes
Diwali is also known for its sweet treats. Patel recommended a few recipes to USA TODAY if you plan on honoring Diwali:
Motichur Laddu is a sugary concoction that melts in your mouth. Start with gram flour batter and fry it into tiny balls. Then drizzle it with sugary syrup and mix in nuts and spices for the perfect bite-sized treat. Find the full recipe on veganrecipesofindia.com.
Jalebiis a spiral-shaped sweet made of all-purpose flour, gram flour and sugar syrup. Boil sugar and water to make the syrup, and mix maida, corn flour, tumeric and curd to make the batter. Using a sauce bottle, draw spirals of the batter onto a frying pan, then drizzle the sugar syrup on top. Find the full recipe on indianhealthyrecipes.com.
Gulab jamun is a dessert made of small balls (like the size of donut holes) dipped in a pool of rose-flavored sugar syrup. You can make the syrup with a combination of cardamom, sugar and water, and the dough for the balls is made up of flour, yogurt, milk and milk powder. Once the dough is shaped into balls, fry them and drown them in syrup. The full recipe can be found on indianhealthyrecipes.com.
David Rising and Victoria Milko of The Associated Press contributed. Michelle Shen is a reporter for USA TODAY. You can reach her from ella @ michelle_shen10 on Twitter.