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The changing colours of Diwali

From diyas to candles to electric bulbs to string lights has been a big transition during the past decades

Gulf News

I must have been about 10 years old. I distinctly remember that my sibling and I were made to wear woollen pullovers when our father was taking us out to see the city illuminated on the occasion of Deepawali (Diwali in short), the festival of lights.

There was more than a nip in the air which, in fact, gave a pleasant feeling after a gruelling period of heat and the humid monsoon. Yet, our father used to take adequate care to protect us from exposure to the changing weather. Slight carelessness and you could end up in bed for a week.

Having participated in the Diwali festivities for over seven decades, I find that these have undergone significant changes in respect of content, the mode, the paraphernalia, materials used and the like.

The most glaring is climatic change. Diwali, like other Hindu festivals, falls on a particular date of the lunar calendar. But I have observed that this time of the year is getting warmer. We are missing that much-awaited climatic charm we used to experience.

Obviously, it is happening under the impact of global warming. Now, one does not need even light woollies at Diwali time at least in northern India. I have seen many doing their daily chores wearing only a cotton vest. The change in the temperature is perceptible.

By the way, a study conducted by US scientists says that by 2047, the average temperature across much of the planet will go up to levels higher than we have ever seen in recent history. By about mid-century, the coldest year will be warmer than the hottest year of the past. Not only man, wildlife, plants and even marine life will face tougher challenges in adjusting themselves to the new normal, scientists have said.

Notwithstanding such a depressing weather and outlook, Diwali has increasingly become much brighter and enjoyable over the years for other reasons. The zeal and mirth remain intact. In fact, the festival has been acquiring a new complexion every five or ten years.

For example, from times immemorial the earthen diyas (tiny bowls of clay) filled with mustard oil was the most popular mode of lighting. But rising prices of this edible oil did not allow large scale use of the traditional diya. So, the diya was elbowed out by wax candles that were hassle free unlike their predecessor. Today, in many homes only a few clay diyas are used as a token ritual.

The orthodox were not willing to give up the diya which, they said, had its roots in the mythology.

In India, candles have always supplemented kerosene oil lamps and lanterns in the countryside and in homes without electricity. But for Diwali and other religious occasions, the diya and other clay pots were essential items.

The festival of lights acquired a new look once again when coloured electric bulbs overtook the candle. But not being cost effective, these were not used widely. The candle, though used extensively, could not match the brightness and longevity of the coloured bulbs which had undoubtedly made the occasion adorable.

Diwali was to acquire yet another facet. The tennis ball sized bulbs gave way to tiny string lights, blinking or otherwise, making the festival more colourful, providing a feast to the eye. These dominate the scene today and seem to have come to stay.

From diyas to candles to electric bulbs to string lights has been a big transition during the past decades.

Diwali is unthinkable without sweets, dry fruits and crackers/fireworks — the other important components of Diwali that have also gone through various phases.

It may sound funny but before Independence, sweets were mostly packaged in small and big bowls made of tree leaves, fastened with threads, at least in the Braj districts of Uttar Pradesh. Around that time, cardboard boxes came into being and blossomed into a big industry.

Today, we find a large variety of beautiful boxes made of different materials with chambers carved out for packing sweets or dry fruits artistically. It is indeed a long way from tree leaves to fascinating boxes.

No Diwali celebration is complete without fireworks and bursting of crackers. For years, indigenously produced fireworks and crackers dominated the scene but in recent years they were hit by imported ones.

Massive and prolonged bursting of crackers, though entertaining, had its flip side also. It raised issues of noise and atmospheric pollution and serious health problems. Thankfully, the rising threat turned the general sentiment against these.

The growing awareness among the masses and proactive steps by the state have saved the situation. One hopes that henceforth the festival of lights will be more bright and colourful —and noise and pollution free.

Lalit Raizada is a journalist based in India.