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Season of Splendor Remembered

October 2007
Season of Splendor Remembered

From North to South and from East to West of India, Diwali (and its alternatives) are celebrated in a myriad of different ways. Here's one person's recollections that signify that despite the varied rituals and customs, the mood and the sentiments remain the same.

Think of Diwali, and a vision of bright lights, firecrackers, and rangoli designs come to mind. It brings excitement to all, especially the kids, who love the color and show involved with Diwali.

I remember the Diwali festivities of my childhood with a warm feeling of joy. It was a special time. The extended family used to congregate at my grandfather's place. There were loads of cousins, uncles, and aunts there just to celebrate Diwali together. We all arrived a few days before Diwali, and it was proper dhamal time.

But things have changed and so has the face of Diwali. A couple of decades back, Diwali was a festival celebrated over a period of 5 days, starting from Dhanteras, Narkachaudas, Diwali, Annakoot, and winding off with Bhai dooj. These five days were full of joy and fun. The preparations started much in advance.

Dhanteras was shopping time. A huge list was made for the things required. There were loads to buy: pooja items, cooking ingredients, and decorating stuff. We kids went to the market in the evening. The chief attraction was clay toys. There was a variety of them—cows, monkeys, parrots, and many more animals and birds. Then there were clay people in myriad forms—the policeman, the dancer, the joker, etc. I still remember the fat "Sethji and Sethani" with their nodding heads. For the girls there was the chulha-chakki, small earthenware toy utensils to play with. A chaughara, a four-compartment serving bucket, was essential. We rarely see them anymore, and with good reason, I believe. Recently, I espied such a set while roaming around the lanes of Mathura. In full excitement I pointed them out to my eight-year-old daughter. The child, brought up on Barbie and Pok�mon, gave me an uncomprehending look and asked, "Yeah, but what do I do with them?"

Next came the crackers: the sparklers, the flower pot, the sparkling disc, rockets, and bombs. There was one item, snake, actually small black pellets. As you put a flame to them, they would ooze out in long, black cylinders, smoking profusely.

Then there were the Ganesh-Laxmi to be bought. I remember, the elders would carefully examine the idols. The depiction of the gods had to be accurate ? Ganesha's trunk ?????

Then there was the hatari that was a must for Diwali pooja. It was a kind of small, clay temple with a diya on top. Another sure feature was the maiden with diyas on her outstretched palms and head.

All these toys and idols were decorated with bright colors and embellished with gold and silver outlines.

Next on the list were the decoration items. Diyas, candles, torans, kandils (paper lanterns), streamers, etc. made up this segment.

On Dhanteras day the ladies of the house went and bought gold ornaments, silver utensils, or any other kitchenware. Such augmentation to the family wealth was considered lucky.

In the evening, all the idols, toys, etc. were placed in the pooja room. A small pooja was done there. Then a big lamp was lit and placed on the threshold. This was an offering to the God of Death, Yama.

The next day was Narak Chaturdasi. We all woke up early in the morning much before sunrise. Everybody was supposed to take an oil bath, apply ubtan, and then take a head bath. After purifying our bodies, we offered prayers, and ate savories. There was a round of crackers, too.

Meanwhile, there was much activity all around the house. Every corner was being thoroughly cleaned and decorated. It was a tough time for the womenfolk. The delightful aroma of the sweets wafted out of the kitchen. Gujhiyas, samosas, ladoos, barfi, besan sev, namakpare, and shakarpare were being prepared in huge proportions. Decorated platters of these delicacies were to be shared with neighbors and friends later.

It was Diwali morning! We were shaken from sleep by the matriarch. She had a silver bowl full off curds in which a couple of silver coins were dropped. It was auspicious to see dhana (wealth) the first thing on Diwali morning.

We bathed early and got ready, as there was lots of work to do. The torans and bandanwars had to be hung; the house and the entrance were to be decorated with flowers. The courtyard had to be adorned with elaborate rangolis and alpanas. Symbols depicting Lakshmi's feet were to be drawn from the main entrance to the pooja room. The kandils were hung at a vantage point to throw colorful light all around. The earthen diyas were soaked in water. This prevented the absorption of the oil by the diyas.

Come evening, and the excitement mounted. We all were freshly bathed and adorned in new clothes. Dusherra and Diwali were two occasions when we had new clothes. At the allotted time the pooja started. It was an elaborate affair that took hours. After the pooja sweets were distributed, the elders gave money to the kids as Diwali blessings. It was patakha time. All the crackers were burst after the pooja was over.

The menfolk moved over to the shops for the pooja. Here new bahis or accounts were started and elaborate pooja was performed. Diwali pooja was taken very seriously by the business community.

The house was replete with guests. People visited their near and dear ones' homes to wish them a happy Diwali. Later, they sat down for a round or two of gambling. Earlier it was kauri (sea shells) and chaupad. Later, cards replaced this ancient form of gambling.

Next day was Annakoot. Traditionally, it is a way to offer the new harvest to the gods. Chappan Bhog—literally translated as fifty-six dishes—was prepared as an offering to the gods. A wooden tiered platform was placed in the pooja room and all these delicacies were served to the deities.

This day also commemorated Govardhan pooja, in memory of that fateful day when Lord Krishna saved the people of Gokul from torrential rains. He is said to have lifted Govardhan Parbat on his little finger to shield the people and the cows from the rain showers. This scene is enacted with a mud Govardhan Parbat and cows.

The fifth and the last day of the Diwali festival is Bhai Dooj. This special day is meant for bonding between sisters and brothers. Sisters visit their brothers on this day. They apply tilak and offer sweets and gifts to the brother. The brother then blesses his sister, showering her with gifts and promises to take care of her forever. It is a touching moment, full of affection and love.

Diwali was always a time for fun and frolic; for reaching out; for sharing and giving. Things are not so laid back and elaborate now. But the mind hankers for those good ol'e days!

By Sia Mitra

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