We take a look at the legends associated with Diwali's many customs and celebrations
Through the five days of Diwali, diyas and rangoli beautify the house to signify celebration, awakening of the mind and the driving away of darkness and ignorance. Diwali is the time when families come together to offer their obeisance to the goddesses. The floor at the entrance of the house is thus decorated with colourful traditional motifs called Rangoli. To signify the arrival of Goddess Lakshmi small footprints are drawn with rice flour and vermillion powder all over the house. The entrances are also decorated with colourful garlands.
The origin of rangoli can be traced to the ancient Puranas. Each part of the country has a different way of creating rangolis. In South India rangoli is called Kolam and is created from rice flour. In North India rangoli is called Chowkpurana, in Rajasthan it is called Madana, in Bihar it is called Aripana and in Bengal it is called Alpana.
According to a legend, a king and his kingdom were steeped in sorrow at the death of the high priest's son. They prayed to Lord Brahma to bring the child back to life. It is believed that the lord was moved by the prayers and asked the king to paint a portrait of the boy on the floor such that he could breathe life into it. And that's how the art of floor painting or rangoli came into being.
Another story says that the son of the king painted a portrait of a girl whom he liked very much, even though his father would not let him see her. Rangoli thus became a form of self-portraiture for women.
Another popular legend says that god once used the juice of a mango tree to paint the figure of a woman so beautiful that it put the heavenly maidens to shame. Some believe that the use of powder or sand to create the rangoli and the inherent delicateness of the medium is a symbol of the impermanence of life and maya.
RETURN OF LORD RAM TO AYODHYA
In many regions it is believed that Diwali was first held in celebration of Lord Ram's return to Ayodhya along with his brother Lakshman and wife Sita after 14 years of exile. Ghee lamps were lit and beautiful rangolis were made on the path of Lord Ram. The festival is celebrated till date to commemorate their homecoming.
The festival of Diwali symbolizes the advent of the harvest festival in some parts of India. Thus, people involved in agriculture across India celebrate the occasion in their own unique way. They offer prayers to Goddess Lakshmi so she showers her blessings for a better crop. They prepare 'poha' and light oil diyas in their courtyards.
EMERGENCE OF GODDESS LAKSHMI
Another interesting legend related to Diwali says that Lord Indra, the king of Gods, was deprived of the blessings of Goddess Lakshmi due to a curse by Rishi Durvasa. As a result, Lord Indra lost all his wealth and valour. On the advice of Lord Vishnu, he performed the process of Samudra Manthan (the churning of the sea) and Goddess Lakshmi emerged amidst the milky sea tides. It is believed that on the auspicious day of Diwali, Goddess Lakshmi visits the houses of her devotees and blesses them.
The first day of Diwali is Dhanteras. It is also called Dhantrayodashi or Dhanwantari Triodasi in some places. 'Dhan' means 'wealth' and hence Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped on this day to provide prosperity and well-being. This day is of special importance to the business community. According to legend, the 16-year-old son of King Hima was warned that he would die of a snake-bite on the fourth day after he got married. His astrological chart predicted it and his young wife was distraught by this thought. So his wife took matters in her own hands and in an attempt to prevent the prophecy from coming true she did not allow him to sleep. She laid all her ornaments and lots of gold and silver coins in a big heap at the entrance of her husband's bedroom and lit innumerable lamps all over the place. That was not all. Once that was done she went on telling stories and singing songs. When Yama, the God of Death, arrived there in the guise of a serpent his eyes were blinded by the dazzle of these brilliant lamps and he could not enter the prince's chamber. So he climbed on top of the heap of ornaments and coins and sat there all night listening to the melodious songs. In the morning he quietly went away. Thus the young wife saved her husband from the clutches of death. Since then this day of Dhanteras came to be known as the day of Yamadepdaan and lamps are kept burning throughout the night in reverential adoration of Yama, the God of Death.
The day prior to Diwali day is celebrated as Narak Chaturdasi or Choti Diwali. Women adorn their houses with garlands and make small rangolis at the doorstep and in the courtyard. Children burst crackers and enjoy special sweets prepared for this occasion. Some people also make small footprints out of rice paste as a symbolic gesture. According to legend the demon king Narakasur, ruler of Pragjyotishpur, a province to the south of Nepal, defeated Lord Indra and snatched away the glorious earnings of Aditi, the Mother Goddess, the ruler of Suraloka and a relative of Satyabhama Lord Krishna's wife. After this victory he imprisoned 16,000 daughters of the gods and saints in his palaces. When Satyabhama found out about this she was enraged by Narakasur's wickedness towards women. She appealed to Lord Krishna to give her the golden chance to destroy Narakasur. The legend also says that Narakasur was cursed that he would be killed by a woman. Krishna granted Satyabhama ermission to fight with Narakasur. With Krishna as the charioteer, Satyabhama entered the battlefield. During the war, Krishna swooned for a while, a preordained divine act dopted to empower Satyabhama to kill the demon. After Narakasur was beheaded, the imprisoned women were released and Krishna agreed to marry them. Krishna returned home in the early morning of Narak Chaturdasi day. The womenfolk massaged scented oil on his body and gave him a bath to wash away the filth from his body. Since then the custom of taking a bath before sunrise on this day has become a traditional practice especially in Maharashtra where women cleanse the bodies of men with the traditional 'uptan'.
LAKSHMI POOJA (DIWALI)
Lakshmi Pooja falls on a no-moon day. Lakshmi means 'wealth' and people clean their houses thoroughly and adorn them with garlands. It is believed that Goddess Lakshmi will visit the cleanest house first. The legend related to this tradtion hs to do with an old sage and his wife lived on their own in an old house. Both of them were very pious and believed in Goddess Lakshmi, but they were very poor. On some days they would not even have even enough food to eat. It was the auspicious day of Lakshmi Pooja and the husband and wife were contemplating how to pray to their favourite goddess and what to offer her as 'prasad'. The wife looked into all the containers in the house but they were all empty. She was very sad and told her husband about it. He told her not to worry and that the Goddess would indeed bless them some day. The wife cleaned the house with her old broom and prayed to the Goddess to bless her and end the troubled times. While she was praying she suddenly remembered that she had left some rice in one of the earthen pots for an emergency. There was just enough to make some kheer for the Goddess prasad. She quickly took it out and milked the cow in the courtyard and made some kheer for the Goddess and offered it to her. Goddess Lakshmi was pleased with the devotion of the old couple and visited their old hut first. From that day on they never
slept hungry again.
The day following Diwali is called Padwa. This day marks the coronation of King Vikramaditya and the Vikram Samvat was started from this day. Many North Indians perform a pooja in the name of Govardhan, a small hillock in Braj, near Mathura. On this day people of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar build cowdung hillocks, decorate them with flowers and then worship them. This festival is in commemoration of the lifting of the Govardhan mountain by Krishna. As per the holy books, the people of Gokul used to celebrate a festival in honour of Lord Indra and worshipped him after the end of every monsoon. One particular year young Krishna stopped them from offering prayers. Lord Indra went into a fit of anger and sent a deluge to submerge the land called Gokul. People were afraid that the downpour was a result of their neglect of Indra. But Krishna assured them that no harm would befall them. He lifted Govardhan with his little finger and sheltered people and animals from the rain. People thus gave him the title 'Govardhandhari'. After this, Indra accepted the supremacy of Krishna.
The fifth day of Diwali is celebrated as Bhai Dooj, popularly know as Bhai Beej. On this day Yamaraj went to his sister's house and she put an auspicious mark on his forehead for his welfare. Thus, on this day sisters perform poojas for their brothers safety and well-being. In return brothers give gifts to their sisters as a token of love.
Another version of the legend is that after killing Narakasur, Lord Krishna went to his sister Subhadra who welcomed him in the traditional way by showing him a light and putting on his forehead a tilak of her sisterly protection.