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The Festival of Lights

Diwali, the festival of lights, has a long, illustrious history in India – celebrated across our diverse country, over the years, it has broken barriers of race and creed to be embraced by one and all.

The whole of India is wrapped in a spectacle of devotion and frenzied excitement during the time of Diwali. This miraculous festival has, over a span of several centuries, crossed the confines of race and religion to be celebrated all over India with great pomp and gusto.

Dhanteras marks the arrival of Diwali and is considered it to be an auspicious day to buy gold and silver jewellery. Day two is observed as Narak Chaturdashi and people offer special prayers and light candles. The third day is regarded as Badi Diwali and is celebrated with firecrackers, the lighting of lamps, wearing new clothes, family gatherings and distribution of mouth-watering sweets. Frenzied devotees offer prayers to Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha. The next day is devoted to the ritual of Govardhan Puja and people commemorate this day in the honour of Lord Krishna's act of lifting the Govardhan mountain. The last day of Diwali is celebrated as Bhai Duj, which symbolises the love between brothers and sisters.

Here is an informative commentary on the spirit of Diwali in three of India's most cosmopolitan cities – Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai.

NEW DELHI

The capital city of India is stupendous in its monuments, forts and imperial legacies. The festival of Diwali holds a very special place in the hearts of Delhiites, with an array of rituals conducted during the festival. One of the best Diwali locales in New Delhi is the Connaught Place hub, which seems to be bursting at the seams with its festive spirit. Another stunning stretch for Diwali shopping in New Delhi is the road that passes through the Parliament building, down Parliament Street, passing through the centre of Connaught Place and extending all the way to Jama Masjid.

That's not all. On Diwali, when the whole of India is luminosity personified, one of India's most outstanding regal edifice, the stupendous Rashtrapati Bhavan, is so beautifully illumined that it has mesmerised many an overseas traveller. The festival of light isn't merely observed – it is celebrated.

MUMBAI

Mumbai, on the other hand, is the economic powerhouse of India. It is the fastest moving, most affluent, most industrialised city in the country. Mumbai is most renowned globally as the biggest film producing city in the world, overtaking even the hallowed Hollywood. The western state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, has a somewhat interesting set of Diwali rituals as compared to other parts of India.

The Marathi people herald Diwali with the trademark Vasubaras, essentially cow-worshiping, which is followed by the ritual of Dhanatrayodashi that involves the womenfolk lighting Diyas (Butter Lamps) and offering the same to Lord Yama (God of Death).

The next day is devoted to observing Narak Chaturdashi which is a celebration of the slaying of mythological demon Narakasur by Lord Krishna. The ritual involves an early morning bath with scented oil – Abhyang Snan. The third day is the time for Lakshmi Puja in the honour of the Goddess of wealth – Lakshmi. The Marathi people believe that Goddess Lakshmi visits every house on this auspicious day.

After the ritual worshipping of Goddess Lakshmi, an exchange of pleasantries and indulgement in delicacies like Chivda, Chakali, Anarse etc is a common practice. The same day is also considered to be auspicious by Marathi couples and the holy ritual of Aukshan is observed where husbands offer special gifts to their wives. The last day of Diwali is the ceremony of Bhau Bij wherein sisters pray for the long and blessed life of their brothers.

The best possible place in the whole of Mumbai to watch the Diwali festivities is the one and only Marine Drive, which basically is a 4.3 km arch along the Arabian Sea. This entire stretch – Nariman Point – Chowpatty Beach – Malabar Hill looks stunning as the neon lights are lit up and fireworks explode on the night sky.

Other locales worth a visit during the Diwali festival is the iconic Gateway of India and the Colaba Causeway. Some of Mumbai's most scenic tourist landmarks like the Fort, Cuffe Parade, the iconic Taj Mahal Palace & Tower all look stunningly-attired in a bewildering array of lights and fireworks display.

The cultural scene of the city is vibrant and by the second week of February, the Annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival – one of India's largest multicultural festivals, which is a kaleidoscope of cinema, visual arts, design and architecture, music, dance and theatre – is held.

CHENNAI

Down south, Chennai is India's fourth-largest city and is the capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. For a traveller, Chennai offers excellent value for money, particularly in accommodation and transport. The city is laidback, unhurried and uncrowded as compared to other metropolitan cities like New Delhi and Mumbai. This incredible city is the cultural hub of South India and is renowned for its art, music, dance and architecture.

Here, people celebrate Diwali one day earlier, as compared to other parts of India. People wake up early in the morning and take a holy dip in the neighbourhood water body after applying a specially-prepared paste on their head and body. Womenfolk involve themselves with cleaning their houses, particularly the kitchen. The water container is filled to the brim for a holy bath. Most houses are intricately decorated with the customary Kolam and Kavi. The main worship room is replete with all the ingredients including betel nuts, betel leaves, oil, kumkum, sandalwood paste, turmeric and a variety of flowers.

Once the puja ceremony is over – which is always held in the morning, it is celebration time. People wear new clothes and come out with all guns blazing – bursting crackers. They indulge themselves in delicacies like Ukkarai, Velli Apam, Chutney, Sambhar, Idli along with Omapudi, Boondhi etc, which are exclusively prepared for the occasion. One of the most popular delicacies is the special Diwali Leghium.

There are several vantage locations in Chennai to involve yourself in the Diwali celebrations. One of the most-popular locales is the idyllic 13 km long Marina Beach – which is the second-longest beach in the world, stretching from St George Fort to Mahabalipuram. The beach promenade is replete with numerous historical monuments, all of which are stunningly illumined during the Diwali festival.

Another exhilarating stretch is the 11 km long Anna Salai or Mount Road, with Parry's Corner being the focal point of attraction. In terms of intensity, the neighborhoods of T Nagar, Alwarpet, Poes Garden and Nungambakkam are absolutely magical. Wealthy saree and gold merchants pour in money on the eve of Diwali to make the neighbourhood appear like a snippet from a plush fairy tale.

During the December-January period, the city of Chennai hosts one of the most elaborate Carnatic Music jamborees – The Madras Music Season, which spans for six weeks and offers the outside world with a rare insight into the mystical realms of Carnatic musical traditions. International audiences remain spellbound as they grapple to understand the nuances of Carnatic music like – Sruti, Svara, Raga, Tala etc.

India is mystical! So be it.

Subhasish Chakraborty

Subhasish Chakraborty

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