2021 Diwali Festival in India: Essential Guide

How, When and Where to Celebrate Diwali in India

Diwali fireworks in Mumbai

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Diwali (or Deepavali in Sanskrit) literally means "a row of lights". This five-day festival, which is the biggest in India, honors the victory of good over evil and brightness over darkness. In North India, it celebrates the return of Lord Ram and his wife Sita to their kingdom of Ayodhya, following Ram's and monkey god Hanuman's defeat of demon Ravan and rescue of Sita from his evil clutches (on Dussehra). In South India, the festival is related to the defeat of demon Narakasura. It's a one-day celebration known as Deepavali. Diwali is also celebrated by Sikhs as Bandi Chhor Divas (day of liberation) due to its historical significance. Sixth Sikh Guru Hargobind Singh was freed from Gwalior Fort prison on this occasion in the 17th century, after being imprisoned by Mughal Emperor Jahangir.

On a personal level, Diwali is a time for introspection, to contemplate and dispel our own darkness and personal demons. Let light shine within yourself, and also shine this light outwards.

Diwali Festival Dates

The festival is based on the Hindu lunar calendar and takes place in October or November, depending on the cycle of the moon. In 2021, Diwali commences with Dhanteras on November 2. It concludes on November 6. The main celebrations happen on November 4 this year. In South India, Deepavali is celebrated on Naraka Chaturdashi, which is usually a day before the main day of Diwali. However, it sometimes occurs on the same day, when the lunar days overlap. This is the case in 2021.

Where is it Celebrated?

Throughout the whole of India. However, Diwali isn't widely celebrated in Kerala, in South India. Why not? The reason seems to simply be that the festival has never really evolved there, as it's not part of the state's social fabric and distinctive culture. An alternative explanation that's offered is that Diwali is a festival of wealth for merchants, and the Hindus of Kerala have never freely engaged in trade as the state is a Communist ruled one. However, Diwali dates back to long before this. The main festival in Kerala, which is specific to the state, is Onam.

If you're wondering about where to best experience Diwali and what to do for the occasion, these diverse ways and places to celebrate Diwali in India will give you some inspiration.

Woman arranging diyas during Diwali
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How is it Celebrated?

Each day of the festival has a different meaning.

  • The first day, Dhanteras, marks the start of Diwali. "Dhan" means wealth and "teras" refers to the 13th day of a lunar fortnight on the Hindu calendar. Lord Dhanvantari, the Hindu god of medicine and an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is said to have brought Ayurveda and the nectar of immortality to mankind on this day. Legend also has it that Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, was born from the churning of the ocean on this day. Homes are cleaned and readied to welcome her. Gold and other metals (including kitchen utensils) are traditionally purchased. People also gather to play cards and gamble, as it's thought to be auspicious and will bring wealth throughout the year.
  • The second day is known as Naraka Chaturdasi in South India or Choti Diwali (Little Diwali) in North India. Rangoli (Hindu folk art) is created in doorways and courtyards of homes, and people start bursting crackers. Lord Krishna and Goddess Kali are believed to have destroyed the demon Narakasura and freed 16,000 captive princesses on this day. Demon effigies are widely burned in Goa in celebration.
  • On the third and main day, lots of small clay lamps (called diyas) and candles are lit and placed in houses. Fireworks are also let off everywhere, giving Diwali its name of “Festival of Lights”. Families gather together and perform the Lakshmi Puja, and give each other gifts and sweets. Kali Puja is usually also celebrated on this day in West Bengal, Odisha and Assam (although it sometimes falls a day earlier depending on the cycle of the moon). Goddess Kali, the fearsome Dark Mother, is worshiped for her ability to destroy the ego and illusions that go with it. In addition, in Odisha, the focus is on guiding the souls of ancestors back to the heavens after they've come to visit. Sugarcane or jute sticks are lit to illuminate their path.
  • On the fourth day, merchants in Gujarat open fresh accounts for the new year, and offer prayers. Govardhan Puja is celebrated in North India, to commemorate Lord Krishna's defeat of Indra, the rain god. In Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the victory of Lord Vishnu over demon king Bali (also known as Mahabali) is celebrated as Bali Pratipada or Bali Padyami. Despite his shortcomings, he was actually a good king and much loved by his people, so Vishnu allowed him to return once a year to visit them. Kerala's Onam festival is dedicated to welcoming the king's return.
  • The fifth and last day, known as Bhai Duj, is dedicated to celebrating sisters. Brothers and sisters get together and share food, to honor the bond between them.

What Rituals are Performed?

The rituals vary according to region. However, special blessings are given to Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesh, the remover of obstacles. It's believed that Goddess Lakshmi will visit every home during the Diwali period, bringing with her prosperity and good fortune. It’s said that she visits the cleanest houses first, therefore people make sure their houses are spotless before lighting lamps to invite her in. This cleaning also symbolizes purification of the mind to remove negativity, clutter and ignorance. Small statues of the goddess are worshiped in people’s homes.

What to Expect During the Festival

Diwali is a family-orientated festival. The lights makes it a very warm and atmospheric occasion and it's observed with much joy and happiness. However, be prepared for lots of loud noise from the fireworks and firecrackers going off. The air also becomes filled with smoke from the firecrackers, which can add to breathing difficulties.

If you're visiting India around the time of Diwali, do be aware that this is a peak travel time for Indians, not only during the festival but for a couple of weeks afterwards (due to Diwali school holidays). Trains will be heavily booked and popular destinations will be crowded.

Safety Information

It's a good idea to protect your hearing with ear plugs during Diwali, especially if your ears are sensitive. Some crackers are extremely loud, and sound more like explosions. The noise is very damaging to hearing. If you're in Delhi around the time of Diwali, you may also want to consider wearing a mask as pollution has skyrocketed to unsafe levels in recent years.