First impressions hint at a magical kind of night. It's a night when flickering flames from countless earthenware oil lamps mingle with the steady glow of electric light bulbs. A night when freshly whitened houses are awash with this lambent light.
It's Deepawali, or Diwali night in India: the Hindu Festival of Light, a celebration of the beginning of autumn and, in most regions, of the Indian New Year. It's a time of food, fireworks and family reunions. Symbolising rejuvenation and renewal, the day-long festivities are also a carnival time for children.
The name Deepawali comes from the Sanskrit language - 'deep' meaning light and 'avali' meaning a row, ie, a row of lights. Spiritually, Diwali marks the day of the ultimate victory of good over evil, light over darkness.
Some communities, especially in northern India, look upon it as commemorating the triumphant return of Prince Rama, along with Sita and Lakshman, who, while in exile for 14 years, successfully vanquished the demon-king of Lanka, Ravana.
In joyous celebration of the return of their king, the people of Ayodhya, Rama's capital, illuminated the kingdom with earthen diyas or oil lamps and let off crackers. Many Hindus believe that in the period of Rama's rule, darkness was banished from the world...
The illumination of homes with lights and the skies with firecrackers is meant as an expression of reverence and thanks to the heavens for all people's health, wealth and knowledge. Thus, the sound of fire-crackers was, and is, an indication of the people's happiness at living on Earth, making the gods aware of their plentiful state.
Another given reason appeals to the rationalists: the fumes produced by the crackers kill the insects, especially mosquitoes, found in plenty during and after the monsoon season.
East and West
In much of the west of India, Diwali is when old commercial accounts are reconciled and new ones opened. This is partly because of New Year observance but also because it is the special day of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and the spiritual embodiment of the emtrpreneurial spirit.
For the people of the central state of Maharashtra, this is a day when meditations on mortality and the metaphysical are on everyone's mind. To the Marathis, Diwali is an opportunity to deflect the attentions of and appease King Bali, dread and dour lord of the underworld.
Eastern Indians take a different tack again. For them, Diwali is a far more convivial affair, celebrating the black-faced god, Kali. Here, it is seen as a night to rejoice with this fierce and vibrant spirit of female energy and primal strength in her celebration of life's cycles of creation and destruction.
The Story of Each Day
The Diwali festival runs for four days. Each day of Diwali has its own tale to tell:
The first day of the festival, called Naraka Chaturdasi, marks the defeat of demon Naraka by Krishna and his wife Satyabhama.
The second day, Amavasya, is the day of worship for followers of Lakshmi. Amavasya also tells the story of Vishnu, who in his dwarf incarnation vanquished the tyrant Bali, and banished him to hell.
Bali returns once a year on the third day, Kartika Shudda Padyami, to light millions of lamps, dispelling darkness and ignorance and spreading the radiance of love and wisdom. This could be called Diwali Day 'proper'.
The fourth day is referred to as Yama Dvitiya or Bhai Dooj; today, sisters will invite their brothers to their homes.
In India, Diwali and the day following, New Year's Day are public holidays.