What is Diwali and how is it celebrated?

What is Diwali?

Diwali-candles

Every region in India has distinctive traditions for commemorating this festival, but whatever the customs, there is agreement that Diwali represents the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness and wisdom over ignorance.

For Hindus, this is linked to the ancient legend of Lord Rama, who was deprived of his kingdom and sent into exile for 14 years. Diwali celebrates Rama’s eventual defeat of the evil spirit Ravana, and his triumphant return to his home. For Sikhs, the celebration highlights the release of guru Hargobind Singh from prison and his return to Amritsar. For Jains, it is a time to celebrate Lord Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, and the moment reached a state of enlightenment.

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The business community considers Diwali an auspicious time to start new ventures. It also holds special significance for married couples and babies celebrating their first Diwali, as both sides of the family can come together.

In India, it’s a five-day festival featuring different ceremonies each day, with the third day being the main event.

On Diwali night, most people offer prayers to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Ganesh, the god representing good fortune and wisdom for the coming year.

As the religious ceremony comes to a close, sweetmeat offerings are placed in front of the deities, and small clay lamps known as diyas are arranged inside homes and outdoors, too. The aim is to attract Lakshmi’s attention and guide her towards these twinkling lamps to bestow blessings and prosperity for the year ahead.

When is Diwali?

Fireworks against dark cityscape

The date of Diwali changes annually – it’s always celebrated on a moonless night in October or November.

How is Diwali celebrated?

Lots of hand crafted plates and mirrors hanging up

The weeks leading up to Diwali are traditionally a time for redecorating the home, buying new clothes and jewellery, and exchanging gifts such as sweetmeats, dried fruits and nuts. This is the season for dinner parties, outdoor food festivals and craft fairs, all of which help build up excitement ahead of the main Diwali celebration.

Expect drinks and and plenty of finger food at these parties, which will usually include platters of kebabs, fried savoury snacks, tandoori grills and spiced sweetmeats.

The five days of Diwali

Two days before the main festival day, it’s considered good luck to buy a metallic kitchen implement, such as a steel ladle, or, if budget allows, a more extravagant kitchen appliance.

The day before Diwali is known as ‘chotti Diwali’ (or ‘little Diwali’). Traditionally, it was a day for getting on with preparations for the big day, but now it’s also an opportunity for last-minute errands and gift exchanges. It’s also a time when intricate floral and geometrical designs, known as ‘rangoli’, are created on floors using coloured powders, rice flour and flower petals.

The third day is the main Diwali celebration. As the sun sets, prayers are said then dozens of clay lamps are arranged around the house. Firework displays follow, but in recent years these have been scaled back due to noise and air pollution concerns. This doesn’t dampen the party spirit, though – especially as there’s a lavish dinner to enjoy.

Activities on the day after Diwali will vary across different regions. In north India, for example, the morning is dedicated to worshipping the tools of work. Chefs will pay homage to their kitchen implements, businessmen will venerate their ledgers, and artists will offer gratitude for their paints and palettes.

On the fifth and final day of Diwali celebrations, sisters pray for the well-being of their brothers, and receive sweetmeats and gifts in return.

What food is eaten during Diwali?

Each region has its favourite dishes. No one fasts on Diwali, and there’s no set evening menu. In some homes, meals aren’t even vegetarian.

Savoury snacks

Chicken drumsticks on a plate topped with lemon wedges and red onion

No one wants their guests to go hungry, and savoury snacks are a practical way to keep everyone going without overindulging them before the main meal.

Chicken drumsticks with cashew & turmeric
Malai kofta with spicy gravy
Channa bhatura
Vegetable samosas
Easy onion bhajis
Aloo tikki
Grilled paneer wraps

Mains

Pan of chicken tikka masala next to a plate of it with rice and a naan bread

Curries are usually the main for Diwali, such as our next-level chicken tikka masala or Kerala prawn curry. If you’re vegetarian, we have lots of meat-free options for you to choose from, like our vegetable biryani or spiced rice & lentils with cauliflower.

More curries:

Indian spice box chicken
Vegetable balti
Mushroom & potato curry
Chicken biryani
Home-style chicken curry

Sweetmeats

Boondi laddu

Sweetmeats (‘mithai’) are the stars of Diwali. They’re made with dairy produce, which has religious significance, and offered to both gods and guests.

Boondi laddu
Kalakand

Sweet treats and desserts

Plate of pistachio barfi

End your Diwali feast with something to satisfy your sweet tooth. Halwai shops are dedicated to making sweet and savoury snacks, although home cooks will also make family favourites.

Pistachio barfi
Gulab jamun
Carrot halwa
White chocolate, pistachio & cardamom truffles
Rangoli cookies
Cardamom-spiced vermicelli
Besan ladoo

Learn more about Indian-style cooking with our guides and recipes…

Top 10 best ever dhal recipes
Top tips for healthy Indian cooking
Our ultimate Indian-inspired recipe collection
Vegetarian Indian-inspired recipes

What’s your favourite Indian sweet? Leave a comment below…

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