As you might already know, Sri Lanka is a nation blessed with numerous ethnic groups, such as Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Thus, this splendid island is certainly expected to celebrate various festivals further enhancing the delight of this wonderful destination. Though 70% of the 20 million people in Sri Lanka are Buddhists, about 13% of them are Tamils. Yet, they have been a major component of the population of Sri Lanka since the 3rd century B.C. Besides, Deepavali or Diwali, one of the widely known ancient celebrations of Hindu culture, is particularly celebrated by the Tamil Hindu community in Sri Lanka, and is indeed a highlight among the festivals in Sri Lanka. It is simply one of the most vibrant attractions on this island, and thus, is a spectacle that is worth experiencing. Hence, we thought of sharing with you its delight, in detail, through this read.
Diwali – The Festival of Lights
Deepavali spreads throughout the island’s various regions, but mostly observable in the North, East and hill country. However, the annual celebration of Deepavali is the most significant and the grandest Hindu festival of Sri Lanka. Deepavali is considered as the ‘Festival of Lights’ which signifies that darkness is warded off and light is welcomed into one’s life and home. Moreover, it implies goodness over evil, the triumph of light over darkness, wisdom over ignorance, and hope over despair.
History of Deepavali
There are many legends related to Hinduism that are thought to be the reason behind the celebration of Deepavali. Some of them are as follows.
Tale of King Rama
The tale is associated with King Rama, who was the seventh incarnation of Vishnu. Also, this tale is one of the most famous stories among Hindus. Accordingly, after living in exile for 14 years in Deepavali, King Rama had returned to Ayodhya with his wife Sita and his brother Lakshman. He defeated Ravana of Sri Lanka, the evil king who had kidnapped Rama’s queen, Sita. When their king returned, the people of Ayodhya were delighted. So, on that joyful occasion, they light up their homes with oil lamps or candles and exchange sweets with each other. Thus, there is a belief that Hindus celebrate this incident on the Deepavali day.
Tale of Narakasura
Another legend states of Narakasura, an evil dictator in Assam, being destroyed. Accordingly, with the help of his mother, Satyabhama, who was also Krishna’s wife, Lord Krishna conspired to kill Narakasura. The strategy worked well. However, before dying, Narakasura asked for a favor from his mother, Satyabhama, and that was to celebrate his death with colorful lights. Thus, Hindus celebrate the occurrence of this incident on the second day of Deepavali. Hence, there is a belief that Deepavali signifies the triumph of good over evil, with regard to this incident.
Other Tales Related to the History of Deepavali
A few more such legends have been narrated over the years about events in history connected with the Deepavali celebrations. Out of which, the return of Pandavas after 12 years of Vanvas, who was in exile due to having lost a game of dice against Duryodhana, is considered another reason. Moreover, another major reason for the Deepavali celebration is in the name of the Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity) and other deities. These stories are indeed passed down through generations of Hindus and are narrated as a part of the festival’s ritual to children to date.
One could think that King Ravana’s kingdom would not celebrate Deepavali/Diwali, but what this cheerful festival signifies is the coming together of different cultures and celebration of diversity. For the people of the North and the South of India, Deepavali has different meanings. Likewise, Sri Lankan Tamils have their own variations when celebrating the festival. But, it symbolizes the triumph of good forces over evil force at the end. Thus, Sri Lankan Tamils believe that Deepavali does not specifically signify Rama’s triumph over Ravana, but emphasizes more about the victory of good over evil.
Traditions of Deepavali
Much like all religious festivals, Deepavali has its own rituals as well. The legend behind Deepavali is described in the holy Hindu writings mentions that Lord Krishna defeated the evil Narakasura in battle. As a matter of fact, on this day Hindu temples will hold special services. Similarly, Tamils from all kinds of backgrounds will meditate and rejoice in what they regard as “the triumph of light over darkness” that occurred so long ago on this day.
Rituals and Celebrations
Deepavali rituals and celebrations of Sri Lankan Tamils are much like the Tamil rituals of Tamil Nadu. They worship Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and dress them up vibrantly with brand new clothes. In addition, Tamils exchange gifts and good wishes with family and friends during this period. Traditional rituals include the lighting of small oil lamps to banish evil spirits. The lamps symbolize hope for a bright future. During this festival, Hindus believe that deceased ancestors come back to visit their families on Earth and the lights are a way of guiding the spirits home. Similarly, the noise is to scare away evil spirits and the sound of firecrackers bursting is popular. Families, friends and business partners exchange presents and sweets, resolve old business deals and motivate to get rid of animosity, resentment and envy on this beautiful Diwali day.
The Five Days of Deepavali
The festival preparations and rituals typically extend over a period of five days. The most prominent and the largest event out of these five days is the night of Diwali. The date is based on the Hindu lunar calendar and takes place within the first month of the Hindu year. However, Deepavali falls around October or November on the Western solar calendar.
Generally, Hindus celebrate Deepavali in Sri Lanka and across the globe but particularly in India. In some parts of different countries, the days might have different names and additional meanings. But, there is enough commonality to identify each of the days. Even though different variations of Deepavali celebration take place in Sri Lanka, the Hindus around the world commonly celebrate the five days in an enthusiastic way. The below section brings all you need to know about the five days and their significance briefly.
Dhanteras signifies the beginning of Deepavali’s five-day festivities. It is traditional for people to clean their homes on this day. Therefore, they are ready to receive Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity, whose evening puja is a ceremonial worship. Further, Hindus consider this day as an auspicious day and a lucky day to purchase luxury things. Similarly, Diwali is a day for them to consider charity for those who are financially less content.
2. Naraka Chaturdashi
Lord Krishna destroyed the evil Narakasura on the second day, according to Hindu tradition. Hence, in some countries, particularly in India, customs on this day are about cleaning the houses before the start of a new year with the aim of getting rid of something evil, marking the end of the year. Signifying this, Sri Lankan Tamils wake up and shower early and put on clean or new clothes. However, the Hindus in parts of Southern India consider this day as the primary day.
3. The Day of Deepavali
Deepavali is the third day out of the five. Hindus celebrate this day on the New Moon. This is the festival’s most significant day for most Tamils and is the last day of the year. As per history, King Rama rescued his wife, Sita, from the evil Ravana and returned home on this day, after a long exile. To celebrate his victory and to light his way back home after the battle, Hindus especially light up oil lamps on this day.
In the Vikram Samvat calendar, Deepavali is the fourth day and also the first day of the new year. Moreover, they consider it as Pratipada, Govardhan Puja or Annakut. Annakut means ‘Mountain of Food’ which is a giveaway process that signifies the day is all about feasting. Traditions say that Lord Krishna raised Govardhan Hill on this particular day to give local villagers shelter from torrential rains.
5. Bhai Bij
The word has a literal meaning to it as ‘Bhai’, which means brother. It is the second day after the new moon which is a day of celebration. This is the fifth and the last day of the Deepavali festival. This day is all about celebrating the relationship between a brother and a sister. On this day, sisters give something to their brothers.
Grand Celebration of the Festival
Similar to other festive occasions, Sri Lankan Tamils also decorate their homes, buy new clothing and exchange gifts during this celebration. Also, Deepavali has its own special means of creating a cheerful environment. As the Deepavali festival heads up, Tamils purchase requirements for their homes as well as gifts for their loved ones. This results in a great shopping festival. During this time, it is also typical for an individual to purchase expensive items such as gold jewellery. Moreover, before the festival begins, they clean, renovate and decorate their homes in a superior way. Similarly, on the night of Deepavali, Tamil devotees dress up in the best clothes they own. The section below will bring you a few things that make Deepavali a lively celebration.
Little oil lamps similar to the Sinhala term ‘Pahana’, light up houses and streets. Generally made out of clay, oil lamps with a cotton wick are dipped in ghee or vegetable oil. The lighting of the oil lamps is a part of the festivities and rituals of the celebration. Furthermore, the name Diwali is from the Sanskrit word Deepavali. ‘Deep’ means oil lamps and ‘avali’ means row which gives the meaning ‘Row of Lights’. Thus, signifying the real sense of this term ‘Deepavali’, Hindus decorate their houses with small well-designed oil lamps placed at borders and entrances of the houses. Moreover, another significance of lighting oil lamps during Deepavali is to represent enlightenment, knowledge or wisdom.
Kolam or Rangoli
Kolam or Rangoli is a colourful mandala – esque pattern drawn on the floor or doorway of one’s home using rice flour coloured with powdered dye. Hindus design these Kolam or Rangoli from a variety of materials including rice flour, coloured rice, coloured sand or even flower petals. The amazing thing is that these patterns differ from the simplest geometrical designs to many other wonderful deity shapes and impressions.
The main intention of preparing them during Deepavali is, as a visual form of prayer, to welcome the Goddess Lakshmi into the house and ask for her blessings on her walks across the world. However, you can find few beliefs tied to the Kolam. Some people believe that there is both negative and positive energy in the air. Therefore, the web-like design and the complexity of the Kolam helps to trap the negative energy in the air. As a result, it will help Hindus to stop them entering the home.
Hindus prepare a variety of divine delights on this day. Precisely, the reason for Deepavali sweets to take centre stage during the annual festivity is, as there is no better way of celebrating the sweet taste of victory than with a sweet dish. Traditionally, they prepare these sweetmeats with ingredients like whey, chickpea flour, ghee, condensed milk, nuts, cardamom, saffron and other spices. Similarly, Deepavali sweets range in shape, colour, flavour and taste too. A few of the common and different types of sweetmeats are namely Gulab Jamun, Ladoo, Jalebi, Halwa, Kheer and Rasgulla.
Traditionally, Hindus wear new clothes for Deepavali. They think that it will bring them good luck and attract prosperity for the new year. However, there is an amazing variation of Deepavali dressing throughout the world. Sri Lankan Tamil females wear Sarees as the main form of attire during Deepavali and many other occasions. More preferred attire are salwar and lehengas. Similarly, men wear the Dhoti Kurta as their traditional dress. Dhoti Kurta is similar to the ladies’ Salwar Kameez in its appearance. However, it is a must note that the Deepavali attires of Hindus, is one of the major attractions of this festival, that further enhances the delight of this celebration.
Fireworks are common during the festival. Hence, there is nothing wrong in saying that the festival of lights (flames) and a night of fireworks constantly enchant the Deepavali celebration. Yes, one can see many and more colorful and sparkling fireworks light up the night sky and illuminate each neighborhood in the season of Diwali, bringing out the true spirit of festivity of this charming festival.
Hindus conduct Laxmi Puja to gain good luck, wealth and prosperity in their lives. Sri Lankan Tamils, dress up in beautiful outfits and offer prayers for a brighter life and a brighter future as well. In Sri Lanka, Hindu temples come alive with special offering rituals from the lighting of hundreds of small oil lamps to eliminate shadows from one’s house and life. Moreover, the ‘Kovils’ which is the Tamil term for temples, seems to be busy on this day. Among which, the Ponnambala Vaneswarar Devasthanam, an ancient Shiva temple seems packed with people of all ages and from across Colombo arrive to offer their prayers in the evening. Moreover, Hindus held special prayers annually on Deepavali.
The Bottom Line
After all, the fascination of Sri Lankan Tamils celebrating the Deepavali festival amid the sound of fireworks and the bells of the temple is simply impressive. Moreover, Deepavali stands as an important day in Sri Lanka, and mostly, a period of happier holidays for the Sri Lankan Tamils as it is a time for family time and gift exchanging. From being dressed in their fineries to bursting crackers to lighting off small oil lamps to banish evil spirits, Sri Lankan Tamils are no different in celebrating Deepavali with a lot of pomp and fervor. Yet, Deepavali in Sri Lanka has a beauty of its own. Thus, undeniably, Deepavali holds a significant place in Sri Lankan culture, shading it with the most wonderful shades of Hinduism.
So, if you are ever planning to backpack on this splendid island, we would suggest to you that the season of Deepavali is one of the best times for you to visit Sri Lanka. And why not? Witnessing Diwali in Sri Lanka, with the splendors of the amusing Sri Lankans, will surely offer you a bunch of wonderful memories to cherish a lifetime. So, what are you waiting for? Arrive in Sri Lanka, and celebrate the festival of lights, Deepavali. Happy and Safe Travelling!