‘Diwali is the five-day festival of lights, celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world. The festival, which coincides with the Hindu New Year, celebrates new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness.’
I got my first taste of Diwali in the chaotic city of Jaipur. Here, gold tinsel hung from the lamp posts and huge LED displays were erected down the main bazaar. Even in the days before the festival began, crackling explosions burst sporadically on the streets. Each one followed by the fluttering of child’s laughter. I could see that in a city this size, this chaos had the possibility to become mayhem, and so the day before the festival I chose to travel three hours West to the holy city of Pushkar.
Like Varanasi, Pushkar is one of India’s most sacred towns, filled with temples and pilgrims who flock to the town to bathe in the Holy waters of Pushkar Lake. The town is set around a series of ghats, each painted an off white, and each with steep stone steps leading down to the huge open pools of Holy water for bathers. As well as religious pilgrims, the town has become a bit of a magnet for spiritual backpackers, who have merged a laid back hippie culture into the mix, creating something that has become very unique to Pushkar. Walk down the main bazaar and you will see cafe’s named ‘The Laughing Buddha’, or ‘Funky Monkey’. Quicken your step a little too much and a shop keeper will tell you, ‘Shanti, shanti’, (slowly slowly), for life moves at a different pace here. And that was just what I needed.
It was dusk when the first signs of the Diwali celebrations began. The Festival of Lights is now celebrated all over the world, through firework displays, street parades and the lighting of candles. I was interested to see how the festival was celebrated in it’s home country, especially in a town so deeply rooted in Hindu tradition.
Walking down towards the ghats, I spotted women in red and gold sari’s wandering barefoot through the bazaar and towards the lake. Each carried a clay pot and a lit candle, each was silent and steady, and the streets unusually quiet. Along the shop fronts and closed coffee shop doors, tea lights flickered in the shallow breeze and the sound of prayer came from each open doorway and temple entrance.
Stalls selling marigold and fuchsia pink flower trains, boxes of milk coloured sweets and fragrant saffron lassi’s were placed along the roadside, but the streets of Pushkar were silent in a way they probably only are once each year. Far from the lavish displays of modern lighting in Jaipur, Pushkar’s celebrations appeared to be deeply personal and spiritual, mostly involving a single candle lighting, the soft whispering of prayers, and the journeying back home to celebrate privately with their families.
I walk through the winding streets, past a white cow wearing a necklace of marigolds and through the maze of flickering candles to the ghats. The same barefoot women who had floated along the bazaar with clay candles now crouched at the waters edge, caressing their faces in holy water and setting light to a single candle which then drifted along the still waters of the lake.
As a foreigner watching these simple acts of faith, it can feel somewhat intrusive, but often I am handed a candle of my own, and at one point a women places a flower behind my ear with a soft and pleasant smile. It’s still early when the streets are almost empty and most of the celebrations continue behind closed doors.
I find an unlit candle and carry it slowly down to the waters edge, placing it in the rippling lake and watching it drift alongside the others. I’ve been in India only a few days, but this simple act has settled me in a way it is supposed to. I see that the meaning of Diwali, and the lighting of an inner candle to protect from spiritual darkness, transcends its religious foundations, which is maybe why this festival has been spread so globally. It is a blessing for a new year and new beginnings.
Information: Diwali is celebrated once a year in October or November. The 2016 festival begins on October 30th. The festival lasts for 5 days however I noticed few celebrations after the first two days. The festival is celebrated across India, Nepal and in other parts of Asia.
Annapurna Mellor is a travel photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. She shoots regularly for brands and publications and her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and The Guardian. When not on the road, she is based in Manchester, UK.