I did not know this before deciding to come to India, but I was lucky to have come during a fall semester. For one, the weather is better – it gets cooler approaching December, while I hear it really heats up leading into the summer months. An arguably even better reason is that most of the big festivals and holidays are in the period from August to November.
The festival we just celebrated was Diwali. It is a huge holiday in India, as well as other nearby countries. Known as the festival of lights, it is of religious origin and a celebration of good over evil. The common story around here is that Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Ram from [Sri] Lanka, where he was exiled for 14 years and where he defeated the demon king, Ravana. Earlier in the week, we had a dinner at our program director’s family home. We helped with rangoli, a design of colorful sand or powder in front yards and doorways. We then lit diyas, clay oil lamps with oil and a cotton wick, and arranged them around the rangoli.
Thursday was the actual day of Diwali. Some of us had gotten diyas and supplies for rangoli and asked for advice from a few staff members. In the afternoon, we painted the diyas, began the rangoli design, and drank tea with samosas that the kitchen staff so kindly made. Several of us went to a friend’s house in the evening, so the others finished the rangoli and lit the diyas. At our friend’s home, his mother held a short and simple puja. Then, we walked and saw firecrackers in the busy streets, watched faraway fireworks from the rooftop, lit our own fireworks from the same rooftop, and literally shared a dinner from one big platter. When we returned to Tagore, the rangoli was already complete and lit up by diyas. That made for a peaceful end to an exciting night.
While Diwali celebrates Lord Ram’s return to his kingdom, Dussehra marks his defeat of Ravana. Dussehra is the day following the nine days and nights of Navratri, also known as Durga Puja. This year, Navratri was at the end of September, with Dussehra on the last day of the month. The stories and deities celebrated vary by region, religion, and sect; I had briefly mentioned Navratri as a celebration of autumn and the goddess Durga. During the nine days and nights, people feast, sing, and dance. On one of the nights, we went to a Navratri concert, attempting a couple traditional dances for hours. One traditional dance is dandiya, which uses dancing sticks and involves lots of people. I have a poor sense of rhythm, but everyone was welcoming and in good spirits.
Back in August, Independence Day and Krishna Janmashtami fell back-to-back this year. Another popular festival, Ganesh Chaturthi, was not far behind. Independence Day, of course, celebrates India’s independence from Britain. Krishna Janmashtami honors Lord Krishna, and Ganesh Chaturthi honors Lord Ganesh. While here, we will miss Halloween and Thanksgiving. Though we plan on decorating for Halloween and having a dinner for Thanksgiving, there was already consolation in getting to celebrate some of the most important Indian holidays in India.