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For Parita Mehta, the rows of lit earthen lamps have always symbolised knowledge and consciousness. “They banish the darkness of ignorance, making way for health, happiness and prosperity,” explains the Dubai-based banking professional from the western Indian state of Gujarat. So her decision to mark Diwali — the festival that celebrates the triumph of light over darkness — in all its traditional glory as the world fights to gain control over a pandemic that has upended lives seems appropriate.

“My husband, Bhavesh loves putting up the Diwali lights and decorating the house; we will continue to do it this year too,” she says. “I will prepare a variety of homemade sweets and Gujarati delicacies.

“Our daughter, Masoom is excited to design rangoli — patterns on the floor made with coloured powders — on all five days of Diwali to welcome the goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi, into our home.”

The only thing that will change for the Mehtas this year is the way they will meet and greet family and friends. “We plan to host a virtual Diwali party with our loved ones and bond with each other digitally and order gifts online to be delivered to their homes.”

Geetanjali Kumar, a school teacher in Dubai, is also thinking of using video calling to connect with relatives and friends across the globe during the festival. “I am not only applying new technology in class but also in my personal life to celebrate Diwali with my extended family around the world through a live video call,” says Kumar, who is from Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. In north India, Diwali commemorates the victory of Lord Rama over King Ravana and his return home after an exile of 14 years. “My mother-in-law will lead the prayers and festivities online by blowing the shankh, or the conch shell, followed by the lighting of the ghee-deepak,” she adds.

Hailing from the same state as Kumar, Rahul Shivam, a software engineer, is of the opinion that Diwali will act as a balm allowing people to forget the tough times they have faced over the past several months and bring them happiness. However, he warns about the need to take precautionary measures against Covid-19 during festivities.

“Our family will celebrate Diwali by performing the traditional Lakshmi puja in the evening, lighting up the house, eating sweets, greeting friends and relatives, but all the rituals will follow the safety guidelines of Covid-19.”

Going small

Diwali has always meant huge gatherings at home for doctor couple Mithun and Vrata Shetty, but this year the south Indian family from Mangalore in Karnataka plans to go small and invite only a few over for celebrations. “We are going to be very careful and maintain physically distancing during our festivities,” says Dr Vrata. “And unlike the previous years, we will not be shopping in crowded areas and will refrain from meeting our relatives and friends in their homes for Diwali.”

While in the north of India, Diwali extends across five days, the festival of lights is limited to three days in southern India. The beliefs also vary, with most of the south marking Diwali as the day Lord Krishna defeated the demon Narakasura.

“On the first day we have the ritualistic oil bath early in the morning, which is followed by a traditional breakfast where methi dosa is served,” explains Dr Vrata. “The second day, we have tulsi puja in the evening and celebrate with sweets and lights. On the third day, we have Dhanlakshmi puja in our clinic and celebrate with our colleagues and friends over dinner.”

Regardless of the different beliefs and traditions, the underlying theme of the festival remains the same — the victory of good over evil.

As the Shettys get ready to celebrate the festival, they hope that Diwali will dispel the unprecedented and challenging darkness that the pandemic has brought about in people’s lives. “We personally know a few families both here and in India who are facing a difficult time and plan to share our blessings with them,” says Dr Vrata.

Five days of festivities
In the north of India, Diwali is celebrated over five days. An architect and project manager from the northern state of Rajasthan, Umesh Agarwal (pictured above with family) says on the first day, called Dhanteras, people buy precious metals such as gold and silver to ward off bad luck and bring wealth and prosperity.
“People invest mainly in gold, diamonds and polki (uncut diamonds),” explains Sanjay Jethwani Partner, Meena Jewellers. “Trends in recent times have shifted from 22-carat jewellery to fancy 18-carat. But one aspect has remained unchanged over the years and that is of people investing in 24-carat gold bars during Dhanteras. It still remains the best form of investment.”
Joy Alukkas, Chairman and Managing Director of Joyalukkas Group, says that while there is an enhanced demand for gold coins and bars as investments, traditional buyers prefer special festive and ethnic collections. “Our varied collections are available both in-store and online making it convenient for our customers to shop from the comfort of their homes.”
In addition to buying precious metals, Agarwal says the day is marked by prayers with one lit diya in the evening, placed at the entrance of the house, to ward off evil.
Chhoti Diwali, also called Roop Chaudas, is celebrated on the second day, where people apply ubtan, a body mask made of rose water, gram flour, turmeric and mustard oil. “Holy bath is taken before the sunrise,” he says. “In the evening, 11 diyas are lit as part of the rituals.”
On Diwali, the third and main day, the Agarwal family celebrates by preparing lots of food and sweets and decorating home and workplaces with flowers, lamps, lights and rangolis. “We perform prayers in the evening with the lighting of diyas, which is followed by bursting of firecrackers and family dinner. We then call our near and dear ones to wish them a happy Diwali.”
The next day is the Govardhan puja, where devotees of Lord Krishna worship the mountain Govardhan with annakut, a mountain of food. “Families build a small replica of Govardhan using cow dung or clay,” he says. “Delicious dishes are offered to Lord Krishna and then the blessed food is distributed to families.”
Diwali ends with Bhai Dooj. “It is a time when sisters pray to God for the longevity, well-being and prosperity of their beloved brothers and as a blessing apply tilak, a vermillion mark, on the forehead of their brothers,” adds Agarwal.