Here in Singapore, we live in a multi-racial, multi-religious society.
But for many of us, that diversity can sometimes be understood in rather over-simplified terms.
For example, we all know that Chinese New Year is associated with boisterous lion dance performances, Muslims fast in the holy month of Ramadan, and Deepavali is known to be the Festival of Lights.
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But it was during a recent conversation with some friends that made me notice how superficially conscious some of us are of the customs and traditions we do not share.
With none of us being Hindu, we realised that nobody actually had a clear idea of the distinction between Deepavali and Thaipusam.
I’ll be the first to hold my hands up and admit – that’s pretty shameful for anyone born and bred in Singapore.
So, with Deepavali coming right up, we did our homework to find out what the festival celebrates and its significance to followers.
First things first, Deepavali is not the Indian New Year
As well-meaning as you may be, the last thing you’ll want to do this Deepavali is to wish your Indian friends a happy New Year.
That’s because the Festival of Lights is far from being the same as the Indian New Year, an occasion typically observed in March or April.
Instead, Deepavali marks the triumph of good over evil, and is celebrated by much of the Indian community, including Hindus and Sikhs, among others. The festival finds its roots in ancient mythology, and there are varying accounts of its origin.
One common version of the story follows the battle between Lord Krishna and the demon king Naraka who was a wicked ruler that terrorised his own people. After he emerged victorious, Lord Krishna was seen to have brought light to the darkness that the oppressed people were trapped in.
Deepavali commemorates the day the demon was slayed, and reminds believers that light can cast away the darkness.
Deepavali or Diwali?
The Festival of Lights is celebrated across many parts of India. Given the diversity of language and culture in the country, it’s referred to differently by different communities.
In Sanskrit, the word deepavali translates to ‘a row of lights’, and this is a term more commonly used by South Indians to refer to the festival. In contrast, the North Indians use the modified ‘Diwali’.
In Singapore, you wouldn’t be faulted for using either, although Deepavali is the more popular reference.
Deepavali and Thaipusam are different festivals
So, to address the question that first inspired this article, both Deepavali and Thaipusam are religious festivals to the Indian community, but they commemorate different beliefs.
While Deepavali is observed by numerous religions founded in India, Thaipusam is largely celebrated by Hindus of Tamil descent as a festival that honours Lord Subramaniam, a South Indian deity of youth, power and virtue. It is also a time for repentance and thanksgiving for believers.
During Thaipusam, an elaborate procession begins in the early morning, where devotees carry kavadis or pots of milk and walk several kilometres along the streets. This year, the procession began at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road and ended at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple in Tank Road.
Rangoli is more than just a festive decoration
Seen on the ground at the doorsteps of believers during Deepavali, Rangoli is a colourful design put together with vibrantly-coloured rice powder to welcome deities into the home and provide blessings to its occupants.
More than just a decorative art piece, Rangoli bears a deeper significance to Hindus.
A Singaporean once held the Guinness World Record for creating the largest Rangoli in the world. In 2003, acclaimed Rangoli artiste Vijaya Mohan created a masterpiece that measured a whopping 2,756 sq ft in size.
A day for tradition and family
On the day of Deepavali, many Hindus, especially the South Indians, will rise early to take oil baths, an act seen as equivalent to taking a bath in India’s sacred Ganges river.
This is followed by prayers performed at the family shrine, where younger family members will receive blessings from the elders. Many will then make a trip to the temple to pray, before paying house visits to their family and friends as part of the festivities, making Deepavali an occasion not just of religious significance, but also a time for loved ones.
With these nuggets of information about Deepavali, there’s little to stop us from having a deeper conversation with those we know who are believers on what makes the festival so special to them.
And to these friends, we wish you a Happy Deepavali!