Since birth, Diwali has been a huge part of my life. While I am Greek Cypriot, my Gujrati grandmother, who has been a part of my family since before I was born, made sure Diwali was as present in my life as Christmas and Greek Orthodox Easter.
I’m lucky enough to have grown up in a family enriched with a melting pot of different cultures, learning all there is to know about Diwali through my grandmother, affectionately known to me as 'yaiyai.'
Growing up I spent almost every weekend with my grandparents, and even moved in with them after graduating and landing my first job in London. This means I’ve spent every year celebrating Diwali with them.
Diwali, also known as the ‘Festival of Lights,’ is a celebration which honours good over evil, lightness over darkness and knowledge over ignorance. You’re encouraged to let go of the old, and usher in the new. Taking place over a duration of five days, it’s considered one of the most popular festivals of Hinduism.
This year, things will look a little different. I have since moved out of my grandparents and will experience Diwali in the height of lockdown. This means for the first time, I won’t be celebrating with my family. While it pains me that I won’t be able to watch a firework display with my extended family, or be force fed all the beautiful sweeties my grandmother makes, this year more than ever I will be reflecting on the true meaning of Diwali.
For my extended Hindu family, Diwali is all about spending quality family time together, which admittedly, can result in several arguments (don’t tell them I said that). The week leading up to the big day is spent buying delectable sweets, cleaning the home, and preparing gifts for each other.
Traditional Indian sweets are perhaps one of my favourite parts of Diwali. They’re the type of treats that make you question every other sweet in existence. Mithai, which means ‘sweets’ in Hindi, tend to be made from a combination of flour, sugar, nuts, legumes and milk. They’re luxurious, and often melt-in-the-mouth, so good that you’ll find yourself reaching for 10 at a time.
My grandmother’s go-to sweets to make are Magas, Sata, Ghari, Laddu and Ghughra, and there’s rarely ever a time she doesn’t have a buffet of them in her kitchen, nor a time I don’t eat them all.
My personal favourites have to be Laddu, particularly Besan Laddu (if you know, you know). They’re these sphere-shaped sweets that are made from flour, sugar and ghee and have the most delicious nutty flavour. Pass me a handful of those, along with an Indian soap drama and my grandma and I are hooked.
My grandmother often tells me that her fondest memories of Diwali growing up is watching her mother prepare for the celebrations. Her family would wake up early in the morning and begin cleaning the house top-to-bottom. The ritual of cleaning during Diwali is important because the celebration is associated with worshiping the Goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi, who will only enter a clean and well-lit home.
There’s no denying the excitement of going to watch a firework display. And when I was little, it was as easy as stepping outside and crossing the road to see the Diwali celebrations in action as my grandparents live in one of the UK’s most religiously diverse areas. They’d paint the night sky in a rainbow of colours, whilst we would watch in awe, until we’d return home for more celebrations, which likely involved a feast of food. And you guessed it, a big bowl of dal.
As well as fireworks, you’ll often find many Hindu homes lit by candles. The various forms of light are a symbol of overthrowing darkness. As a child, my sisters and I would all get involved in tea-light decorating in preparation for Diwali. We'd cover those plain old terracotta tea-light holders in as much paint and glitter we could get our hands on. And you bet we forced our grandparents to have them on display.
Like most festivals and celebrations, gift giving is an important tradition. Every year, I’d be gifted money by various members of my grandma’s family, and it would always arrive in the most beautifully decorated envelopes. What some people don’t know, is that Diwali is celebrated as the new year in the Hindu calendar, and so people give gifts as a way of showing love and honour to those they hold dear.
With lockdown in full swing, it’s clear that Diwali will look a lot different to what people are used to. But, that’s not to say the meaning behind the celebrations (however small) will be any different. And in such uncertain times, I think we could all do with putting on our own little Festival of Lights.
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