Context: The informant, a 19-year-old female college student of Indian and Pakistani descent, described the Indian holiday of Diwali to me when we were discussing how her mixed cultural background has shaped her worldview today.
Informant: Probably the most popular holiday in the Indian culture is Diwali. Basically, the way my family celebrates it, is that my dad always turns on every single light in the house. So, like he lights a bunch of candles, and it’s supposed to serve as a symbol of light in darkness. So, when the sun goes down, you turn on all the lights in your house. Basically the way my dad told me the story of like why the lights in the house are on is that there was once a prince and he had a wife. There was this demon character who kidnapped his wife and somehow the prince defeated the demon. Then, in order for the princess to find a way back, everyone in the town lit candles so she could find her way back to him. So, the holiday is a symbol of love conquering all and light overcoming darkness. I think it usually happens in October… or November… usually around my birthday. There are other activities that go along with it, but I don’t really know…. I think it’s like a family-oriented holiday. I actually think people give money… people give… we go to my grandparents’ house and they give us money! I think it’s supposed to be like how in some cultures people give money on New Year’s for good luck and wealth and good fortune in the new year. We celebrate with family and food and that kind of stuff. You mostly just stay in and light candles and eat good food and celebrate with family.
Informant’s relationship to the item: The informant typically celebrated Diwali growing up in her household, but it has been several years since she last took part in the festivities. Her excitement about the holiday increased as she continued to describe the rituals associated with it; the details of the holiday came back to her as she spoke, despite not celebrating Diwali since her childhood. She explained how the holiday not only helped connect her to her immediate family, as her dad taught her about the legend surrounding Diwali, but also to her extended family, as the holiday included visits to her grandparents’ home. The informant also clearly understands the symbolic importance of Diwali (light overcoming darkness), as well as the holiday’s similarities to celebrations in other cultures that include giving money as a symbol of prosperity and good fortune.
Interpretation: In addition to the informant’s insights on the symbolic importance of Diwali, the holiday, like many others around the world, clearly has spatial and temporal significance. The informant mentioned that the events of Diwali typically take place within the homes of family members — both immediate and extended. This prescribed space relates to the holiday’s legendary origin, as well as its association with family bonding and connection. The holiday also takes place around the time of the harvest season (specifically, between mid-October and mid-November). This time period is significant on the circular calendar because it takes place after the conclusion of the summer harvest, and typically coincides with the new moon — the darkest night on the Hindu lunisolar calendar. The main event of Diwali — the lighting of lights and candles — is meant to overcome this darkness at the onset of winter, reminding people that light overcomes darkness and wisdom triumphs over ignorance. After conducting my own research on the legend surrounding the holiday, I discovered that there are several different versions of the story my informant recalled. The most popular variation on the legend is the story of the homecoming of the Lord Rama, returning after his exile and journeyings of 14 years to take his rightful throne. He brings with him Sita, his wife, rescued from Ravana, the demon king. The palace and the city were illuminated for him to help him find his way back. Despite having slightly different plot points in her version of the story, with the most notable difference being that Sita makes the journey home alone in her retelling, my informant understood the symbolic importance of the legend: that love conquers all.
For another version of the legend surrounding the Indian holiday of Diwali, please see p. 53-54 of E.F Coote Lake’s 1960 “Folk Life and Traditions.”
E. F. Coote Lake. “Folk Life and Traditions.” Folklore, vol. 71, no. 1, 1960, pp. 52–58. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1258790.