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USC Diwali Celebration: What The Festival Of Lights Is All About

Chhaya Nene |
November 16, 2012 | 9:00 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter


On the darkest night of the year, which normally falls during the first half of November, millions of Indians greet each other by shouting these two words, “Happy Diwali!”

Diwali comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Deepavali’ which means “row of lights." Many people have come to know the holiday as the Festival of Lights, but don’t truly understand what the holiday entails or symbolizes. Diwali is a spiritual, religious, and social holiday filled with food, new clothes, and a new start to life. It is considered the start of the New Year and a time when the primary significance of the holiday is to be aware of one’s “inner light." The holiday lasts five days and honors many Hindu deities, including Ganesh (the elephant God) and Laxmi (the Goddess of wealth and prosperity), and the return of Lord Ram.

The story of Lord Ram’s return from Sri Lanka is one of the most beloved in Hindu mythology, and one many attribute to the celebration of Diwali. The story begins when the demon and king of Sri Lanka (Ravana) kidnapped Lord Ram’s wife (Sita). It took Ram several years and the help of both people and animals to build a bridge from India to Sri Lanka, after which Ram defeated Ravana. Upon Ram’s return, the people of Ayodhya (a holy town in India) welcomed Lord Ram and his wife Sita by decorating their homes with small clay lamps. These lamps were also symbolic of the triumph of good versus evil—a theme that defines Diwali celebrations everywhere today.

Celebrations of the holiday include fireworks, worships, prayers, cleaning the house (both mentally and physically) and a personal favorite of eating sweets. It is a special time where moods are joyous, spirits are warm, and the need to visit a dentist to check for cavities post-sweets is a must. The holiday is not exclusively for Hindus, but instead embraces and invites people of all faiths to shed worries, resolves conflicts and truly find the light in the darkest of situations.

As an Indian born in America and attending school away from home, I often find myself craving the home-cooked foods that accompany Diwali. It is a holiday celebrated in what I know to be my parents' house, but after years of parties, the house is no longer simply our own but rather a place for the entire town to come celebrate all holidays, American and Indian.

The first day of Diwali begins with ever-lasting food preparations and family singing old Hindi songs while cooking the most fragrant and delicious snacks. Every person in the house has a smile ear to ear as they clean, make the clay lamps, and string what most call Christmas lights on the porch. As the evening approaches friends arrive in colorful clothing, donned in everything from bright Saris to regal Kurtas. People are scattered throughout the house and the front yard. Those outside create beautiful images known as Rangoli, or sand art.  After hours of eating, singing, and even dancing, the fireworks begin. It is often a humorous and confusing moment for our neighborhood, because many believe that we simply don’t know when New Year’s begins and that we enjoy fireworks during the month of November. Fireworks are followed by singing, and numerous glasses of tea--- a past time many Indians cherish. The evening ends around 6 a.m. after people are truly partied out.

This year, I missed the entire home-cooked food experience, but traded it for a new tradition. I was able to share with my housemates a small-scale version of Diwali that included buying flowers, clay lamps, sparklers and sweets. Though this celebration occurred far from home, the smiles I saw and the laughter I heard that night made this Diwali an extra special one.

The University of Southern California’s Hindu Student Organization will host a Diwali party 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 17 at USC's Town and Gown Hall. The group’s Facebook page welcomes those of all faiths to come celebrate.

The goal of USC HSO's annual Diwali event is to provide a place for students, away from home or near, to join in the prayer and merriment of a shared culture," the page says. "We welcome students from all backgrounds and religions to celebrate with us as we engage in a night of flavorful cuisine, diverse performances, and high-spirited fun. It's the brightest night of the semester!”

If you have never had the chance to experience Diwali, this is truly an event not to be missed.

Reach Chhaya Nene here.



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