The colours, the lights, the food, and the people. Those are the words that come to mind whenever I think about Diwali. 

Growing up as a Hindu in Malaysia, Diwali was one of my favourite days of the year. It is a day of sensory delight, love, happiness, and human connection for me.

I live in Portugal now, and though the Diwali celebrations here are not as grand and colourful as they were back in Malaysia, it’s still a day I look forward to every year.

How much do you know about Diwali?

I thought it would be interesting to talk about what this festival is, share my experience of celebrating Diwali back in Malaysia, and how I currently celebrate it in Portugal.

What is Diwali?

Photo by wilson mathew on Unsplash

Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights, is one of the major festivals celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains. More than 1 billion people throughout India and its diaspora celebrate this festival worldwide. Its name derives from the Sanskrit word dipavali, meaning “row of lights”. Many people decorate their homes with clay lamps to celebrate the ocassion.

There are many origin stories behind this festival. Scholars consider Hinduism to be the oldest religion in the world, with records and customs dating back 4,000 years. Over this time, there have been multiple takes on the legend behind Diwali. These legends have been altered by the passage of time, the influence of regions, and the representations of the different communities that celebrate this festival.

However, there is a common theme throughout all these different stories. Diwali is the celebration of the triumph of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and good over evil.  

One of Diwali’s most popular origin stories is the celebration of King Rama’s return to Ayodhya with his wife, Sita, and his brother, Lakshmana. Legend has it that after their defeat of the demon Ravana in Lanka (some say this is current-day Sri Lanka), millions of lights were laid out across Ayodhya to guide King Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana back home. 

I remember watching an interesting anime about this Hindu epic when I was younger, and I highly recommend it. (Fun fact: Rama is voiced by Bryan Cranston, widely known for his role as Walter White in the Breaking Bad television series.)

When is Diwali?

Hindu lunar calendars are used for celebrating Diwali, which is based on moon phases. Calculations are based on how long it takes the moon to orbit Earth each month. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, the Hindu calendar has 354 days in a calendar year. This means the date of Diwali changes every year. Diwali typically falls in the months of October or November in the Gregorian calendar.

For 2022, the main Diwali celebration takes place on 24th October.

How is Diwali celebrated?

People from many countries around the world celebrate Diwali. It’s a national holiday in Fiji, Guyana, India, Malaysia, Mauritius, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.

With the diverse cultures and regions that celebrate it, there are many different ways a typical Diwali celebration day looks like. I’ll share my experience celebrating Diwali in Malaysia, where it’s also called Deepavali. 

The night before Diwali, we usually meet with our extended families to offer prayers and pass our respect to dearly departed family members. 

Temple visit (Photo by Harvind)

On the actual day of Diwali, we start our days with an oil bath in the morning. Symbolically, the oil bath ritual signifies new beginnings by removing ego and jealousy. My siblings and I ask our parents for their blessing, a sign of respect and love.

After these traditions at home, we head to the temple to offer prayers, and we have our breakfast there after completing our prayers. Temples usually serve vegetarian food for visitors on this day. For reasons unknown to me, the vegetarian food served in temples is usually some of the tastiest I’ve ever tried!

When we were younger, we visited our late grandparents after the temple. We asked for their blessings, spent afternoons in their houses, and had tasty home-cooked lunches. After these visits, we head back home to start preparing for the annual Diwali dinner that we host for friends and family.

What are some popular dishes?

During the dinner celebration, we lined up clay lamps around the outside of our house. Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit word dipavali, which means “row of lights”. Rangoli art usually decorated the floor too, colourful pieces of artwork created from colored rice or sand. It is customary to place these artworks at the entrances of homes as a sign of good luck.

Clay oil lamps & rangoli (Photo by Jyoti Singh on Unsplash)

Some of the most popular food that we served at home when celebrating Diwali in Malaysia include:

  1. Dosa / thosai: a thin crêpe in South Indian cuisine made from a fermented batter of ground black gram and rice.
  2. Murukku: a savoury, crunchy snack made from rice flour, urad dal flour, and basic spices.
  3. Mutton varuval: a rich goat curry made using a complex balance of flavours. 
  4. Biryani: because no Asian cuisine can be complete without some form of rice. The main ingredients in biryani are Indian spices, rice, vegetables, and usually meat.

Needless to say, celebrating Diwali at home involved lots of preparation. This ranged from cleaning the house, preparing the food, and setting up decorations. It was always a family effort with everyone chipping in (including the pets).

The hard work always paid off in the end though. We got to see friends and family from different races, cultures, and religions coming together to celebrate the occasion, connect with each other, and enjoy delicious food together.

How will you celebrate Diwali?

I know how I will. My wife and I will head to Viseu to visit her family. We will video call my family back in Malaysia, and we’ll head to our favourite Indian restaurant to sample some authentic Indian food. (My craving for a good mutton varuval just kicked in while I wrote that sentence.)

I will always treasure those memories of celebrating Diwali back in Malaysia, and I can’t wait to build new memories here in Portugal with an exciting new take on this beautiful festival. 

Do you celebrate Diwali differently in your country? Drop a comment and let me know, I’d love to find out! If you know someone who will be celebrating Diwali, ask them if you can be part of the celebrations. They’d love to have you and share the occasion with you. 

Want to learn about different cultures and share yours with others? Join SPEAK as a buddy and share your world with the community. 

Interested in learning more about Asian culture? Here are 10 things you need to know about Ramadan.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of SPEAK

Author: Harvind Ganase

Harvind is a Senior Full Stack Marketer at SPEAK. Originally from Malaysia, he currently lives in Portugal and is continuosly impressed by the great coffee available throughout the country. Harvind enjoys playing the guitar, watching movies (preferably sci-fi), and all things technology.

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