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What is Diwali and how is it celebrated?

Meaning "rows of lighted lamps," Diwali is a celebration of light over darkness for different cultures across the world, especially South Asia.
Credit: AP
A Hindu devotee lights oil lamps at a temple during Diwali, the festival of lights, in Hong Kong, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. Diwali is one of Hinduism's most important festivals, dedicated to the worship of the goddess of wealth Lakshmi. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Diwali, or Deepavali, a Sanskrit word meaning “rows of lighted lamps,” is a Hindu-originated festival that's celebrated across different religions and cultures around the world, especially in South Asia.

The festival generally symbolizes the victory of light over darkness but is observed differently by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists.

"Diwali/Deepavali has long been a cultural holiday where people get together, have parties, give gifts to each other and generally pray for a prosperous future. For some communities, the day after Diwali also marks the beginning of the new year," Deven Patel, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's South Asia Studies department, told USA Today.

When is Diwali?

The festival typically happens in October or November over the span of several days. The dates are different each year because they're based on the Hindu lunar calendar. This year, the main holiday falls on Thursday, Nov. 4.

How is it celebrated?

The literal translation of Diwali is "a row of lamps and lights."  So, people often light candles or oil-filled clay lamps known as diyas throughout their homes and along their driveways. 

For Hindus, as Encyclopedia Britannica explains, the light invites the presence of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. 

Homes are often decorated and floors are covered with rangoli, which consists of elaborate designs made of colored rice, sand, or flower petals, according to the Hindu American Foundation.

People may also buy colorful new clothes and host gatherings to celebrate the joyous holiday.

Even during a pandemic?

The coronavirus pandemic may cast a shadow on typical celebrations this year. COVID-19 ravaged through much of India in the past year, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives.

"I don't think there is any family that has been untouched by COVID," Inni Kaur, creative director at the Sikh Research Institute, told USA Today.

"When we have a death in the family, these types of celebrations are not celebrated with exuberance," Kaur added. "We have a year of mourning in most cultures and in most homes. So it's going to be a subdued celebration." 

However, the rollout of vaccines does provide some hope for a return to typical celebrations.

What are some typical Diwali foods?

Throughout the festival, traditional sweets and savory items are eaten as well as full meals, particularly on the third and fifth days, according to the American Hindu Foundation. Among the sweets are diya-shaped sugar cookies decorated with icing and savories include mini-samosas and puris. 

Southern Indian street snacks Aloo Bondas, potato stuffing inside the golden crispy coating, are often enjoyed. Gulab Jamun, small balls made of milk solids and flour dipped in a pool of rose-flavored sugar syrup, are a popular sweet treat.

Find a list of 20 traditional Diwali recipes in the Times of India.

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