THE FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS IN THE INDIAN OCEAN
In October 2017, I embarked on a multi-centre holiday to Abu Dhabi followed by Mauritius. This trip marked the first of my many travels with both my parents; just the three of us.
Coincidentally, we had planned the timing of this holiday so that we would be able to celebrate Diwali in Mauritius, where the majority of the population are of Hindu descent.
Before I get into how we celebrated Diwali on the island, let me tell you the meaning behind this five-day festival which is celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the globe. Diwali comes from the Sanskrit word Deepavali, meaning "rows of lighted lamps". Hindus celebrate the safe return of Lord Rama after rescuing his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana to Ayodhya, therefore, it is a festival of new beginnings; the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. The fourth day marks the most prosperous day of the festival, the beginning of the New Year.
This year according to the Hindu calendar, we will be entering the year 2077 on Monday 16th November.
On this day it is a tradition to perform religious ceremonies, wear new clothes, visit family, exchange gifts and clean the house. Just as with Christmas, houses, shops and public places are decorated with rangoli patterns and lit with small oil lamps called diyas. An authentic rangoli design is made from dry rice powder or paste. Rice powder is used because it is white in colour and readily available. By adding spices, leaves and bark, other natural colours can be created. It also serves to feed insects and small birds, demonstrating that one must take care of other forms of life as well, in order to create a natural balance. A rangoli design placed at the entrance of the house signifies the welcoming of Goddess Lakshmi. Prayers are offered to her, asking for blessings in the form of wealth. The rangoli design is not only to welcome the goddess but also guests into our homes.
Many also put on fireworks displays and of course all the feasting that goes with it, including generous amounts of Indian sweets!
“So, what made this (2017) Diwali so significant?” I hear you ask.
Well, it was the first year I felt that I celebrated Diwali properly. I hope that makes sense, if not, maybe the following will help you to understand.
I grew up outside of the Indian community, so to speak. Being one of literally a handful of Indians where we live, as well as throughout my school years, meant that I didn’t have the opportunity to take part in many Hindu festivities, let alone bond over all things Bollywood. This did not discourage me to want to learn about our heritage and culture, but it did mean that I never really followed many of the practices and teachings of the religion.
At most, we would spend an evening watching a Diwali programme in the next town. There would be a variety of performances on show, but it was the beating of the dhol (a drum) that always got this British Desi girl in the spirit of celebrating.
Right, back to Mauritius and the day of Diwali! We spent the morning participating in the water activities that were complimentary to our stay at Lagoon Attitude Hotel. This included wind surfing lessons and a tour around the island in a glass bottom boat. We may not have seen much under the sea, but it was refreshing to get out on the water under the blazing sun, spotting the locals enjoying their day off and carrying out their celebration preparations on land. As we headed back into the main dining area for some lunch, we noticed a few of the staff applying henna to each other’s hands. Usually the application of henna is reserved for wedding celebrations, however, my mum and I instantly decided we wanted some too, so we had a word with one of the managers who arranged for us to get a pattern painted onto our hands by one of the staff. In another corner of the resort, a competition was going on between the staff; who could create the best rangoli design. It was amazing to see how much creative effort the staff put into their work, some were intricately produced with immense attention to detail, others were simple geometrical shapes, but oh so vibrant in colour. They were also encouraging the hotel guests to decorate their own clay pots, which would later hold the lit diyas in. Of course, we had a go and my dad being the artistic genius of the family easily won the competition we were having between ourselves!
As the sun began to set, a coach load of us began our journey to the town of Triolet, located in Pamplemousses. The trip was organised by the hotel and we were all so excited as we began to see fireworks ascending into the night sky through the coach windows. For a while, this unfortunately felt like all we were going to see due to the amount of traffic we drove into. But just like any good hospitality manager would instruct in such a circumstance, it was time to swiftly move on to plan B. We disembarked the coach in the opposite direction to where we were supposed to be, but that possibly worked out to be an advantage as it meant we could wander the streets and see how not just the houses had been decorated, but the shops too! Locals dressed in traditional attire passed by us, either making their way to the nearest temple or to a loved one’s house to celebrate the auspicious occasion. We were so fascinated by the way Mauritians incorporated technological lighting and effects to light up their houses, I guess it was a bit like the strobe Christmas lights you see nowadays. Eventually we reached the home of a Mauritian family who welcomed us in with sweet treats (including my favourite, gulab jamun) followed by a firework display. To end the day, a scrumptious Indian dinner was awaiting us at the hotel – now that’s how it should be celebrated! Although we weren’t in the presence of all our loved ones, just being present in that moment with no worries, surrounded by the culture, factoring in the fun we had earlier in the day painting our clay pots – the feeling of accomplishment came over me, that I had finally experienced the kind of Diwali I had always pictured in my head.
To anyone reading this, may this Diwali bring to you fresh hopes, bountiful beginnings, bright days and new dreams. Wishing you a very Happy Diwali & Prosperous New Year x