Festival #3: Diwali!

Diwali is probably the biggest festival in India, one of the relatively few that’s celebrated across the entire sub-continent (this year it was on October 26). So as the day of the week-long holiday approached at the end of October, almost everyone on campus prepared to go home to their families. Before everyone left, we had a celebration on campus. We dressed in our best clothes (thanks Sulabha for lending me a sari!), and everyone looked so lovely. There were some firecrackers which were awesome (Diwali tradition), making loud POPS and phizzing off through the trees. For the meal, we all sat around the edge of a room and people came around with giant pots of food, serving each person a spoonful. Again, this description of what we did doesn’t capture the feeling of connectedness and community that this way of celebrating fosters. The closest comparison I can make to the US is when we all sit around a big table for Thanksgiving or Christmas (but imagine 75 people eating at once!).

Indians are really good at feeding a crowd!
How can you ask them to eat their vegetables first when there’s creamy-sweet shrikand on the plate too?!

All the food was delicious: khadi (tangy buttermilk-based soup), bhaji (vegetables), puri (fried bread), spiced lentils… but the hit of the meal was definitely shrikand, a sweet thick ice cream-like substance that you dip the fried puri into- and mango flavored! Wow…

This was a campus-wide celebration, so many of the adults whose family members were staying in the hospital came too. Many are from the tribal areas, meaning they have their own language, Gondi, and cultural traditions. After dinner, about 15 men and women linked arms and did a traditional dance, singing in Gondi as they stepped around in a large circle. We listened for some time, people gradually heading back to their rooms for the night… and still they were dancing. Sulabha asked if we wanted to head to bed, and I said, “want to wait until they’re finished?”; but she said that they were dancing not as a performance, but because they wanted to, and would likely go on for another hour, or until whenever they felt like stopping. I was deeply touched by this, because it meant this tradition was not merely “put on” for outsiders as a show —it still had firm roots in their culture. So we left late at night to the sound of their singing.

Since my family was thousands of miles away, Vaibhav, one of the doctors here, invited Sulabha and I to come to his home and village and celebrate Diwali with his family! We spent a few quiet days on campus with Durga tai, the one kitchen staff member who was still around, before heading out to Dhaba, Vaibhav’s village. On one of the bus rides over, about 10 people sitting up front were asking what seemed like my entire life history, curious why this foreigner was here. But if that seemed like a lot of attention, it was nothing compared to the rest of the week! More on that in a bit…

The bus pulled into Ashti, a small town, then we hopped in an auto-rickshaw and set off on a little path through the forest that eventually gave way to the roads of Daba village. The ride through the forest was peaceful and still. The village itself looked a lot like Porla: narrow streets, people getting water from hand pumps, cows jangling their bells… Viabhav introduced us to his mother, who was so warm and welcoming. She runs a little mill that grinds grains into flour and spices into powder, which is right outside her house. The home was small, really only one room with a few compartments, but you felt as though whatever she had she would willingly offer it to her guests. She’s also done a remarkable job using every little bit of space she has in a way that’s tidy and efficient. A coziness and sense of closeness permeated the whole place. Vaibhav’s aunt, uncle and cousins live literally right across the path, really in the same compound. Isn’t that awesome?? It makes hopping back and forth between each other’s houses so easy. The relatives’ house was much bigger and fancier, with several rooms and this modern décor that was more stylish than my room at home! But the beautiful thing was that there didn’t seem to be any “tension” between the two households: they both acted as though they were one family (which they are) and shared many things accordingly. Coming from a culture (or at least a sub-culture) where family is considered to be your immediate relatives, this openness / more welcoming definition was so refreshing.

Anyway, by the time we got there, Diwali preparations were well underway, which here implies cooking A LOT of food. There are special snacks and sweets that are just made on Diwali, and since people from across the neighborhood and village come to each others’ houses on Diwali night, you make enough to feed all of them! And make by hand, mind you! Eventually I recovered from the shock of seeing several multi-gallon drums filled with three different kinds of these snacks:

Vaibhav’s cousin and aunt showing off a snack (there were three containers of this one!)

The next morning we went on a lovely walk, around that time when all the birds seem to be singing a symphony of songs. In addition to a cool woodpecker, we saw this gorgeous bee eater that was bright green!

Lovely bee-eater

As well as some other critters:

already dead, whew!

When we got back, Vaibhav’s aunt was preparing for the pooja, the ceremony done on festivals to honor a certain god or goddess. There were a ton of rules associated with the different steps (e.g. you can’t start this process till after you’ve taken a bath,  women having their periods couldn’t participate, etc.) which at first just seemed so unnecessarily complicated to me. But Sulabha explained the origins behind many of these practices / what the original intent was, and that helped me at least relate to it a little better.  We also went to the village’s main temple; a saint had passed through this village maybe 50 or 100 years back and was admired for his holiness, so a temple was built in his honor. Like many of the temples I’d seen, there was a carving / statue of a cow and one of the gods in a small room, and you enter the room and bow your head, putting your hand into colored powder and touching the figures’ foreheads. You can also throw some fresh flower petals too.

The shrine in Vaibhav’s relatives’ house where the pooja was performed

Though I admired the craftsmanship that clearly went into a lot of these figures, I had been having a hard time feeling “spiritual” during these ceremonies. But one morning, I watched Vaibhav’s mother cleaning off the figurines in her home’s shrine with the utmost care: she had bathed first, and was dipping each object in some water to remove the flour dust that inevitably came in through the nearby door to the mill. Her tender thoroughness as she cleaned each item and then replaced it in the shrine, lighting incense and adding fresh flower petals and just doing whatever she could to make it look fresh and vibrant… all this made me appreciate her devotion to her worship, even if it’s hard for me to relate to some of the specific beliefs. Likewise, part of the preparation for the pooja ceremony involved stringing fresh garlands of marigolds together that would be draped around the shrines and pictures, and just the activity of making the garlands was itself a lot of fun!

Stringing mala (flower garlands)! The marigolds smelled so fragrant!
The finished product! And the whole giant bag of marigolds cost a dollar or two

The families’ cows were honored with their own pooja too! They were given some special food and painted different colors. Other cows around town sported bead necklaces and painted horns.

Vaibhav’s aunt touching the cow’s rump during the pooja, because that’s where one of the goddesses resides. They looked so colorful! 🙂

It wouldn’t be Diwali without firecrackers! We went back to the bigger town and stocked up, then set them off that night in the little tiny streets! I’m used to fireworks being set off several miles away so to see and hear them so close was quite an experience 🙂  It was even more fun because it was RIGHT in your face! There was a crazy-fun atmosphere as the latest brave kid would place the cracker of choice on the street, hold the flame close to it, then as soon as it caught he’d zip away as fast as he could! My favorite kind was called chakras, which means wheel, because it spins in circles on the ground.


The two moms had spent most of the day cooking, and in the evening we had a great dinner.

dinner time: on the floor and eating with our hands = great! 

Finally there was another pooja performed in the family’s store (a little pharmacy out front of their house). Everyone dressed up (I was lent a sari but everyone else my age dressed in jeans!).  Then we went around to other houses in the neighborhood and after paying our respects at their stores, they would bless us and give us a sweet. By the end of Diwali, including the week after when everyone came back to work and brought Diwali sweets from their homes, we’d had more sweet things than I could count.

Whenever we went out I was getting a lot of curious looks. To be expected: I was probably the first white person to ever visit Daba. But apparently word had spread that a foreigner was visiting, because one of Vaibhav’s friends who’s a reporter wanted to write an article on me! Fortunately it didn’t end up happening but it was still pretty hilarious (I mean, what was there to write about?!).

Sulabha and I said our goodbyes the next day, and I was so happy to have spent time with this awesome family. We stopped in this city called Chandrapur on our way back, and visited two temples. The first was more well-known, with tons of people visiting and lots of little shops leading up to it selling coconuts, incense, and other things you could place as offerings at the shrine. But it was the second one that blew me away: it was 800 years old and had beautiful carvings in the stone from ancient texts, like scenes from the life of Krishna. Oddly enough, it was almost deserted, with just a handful of visitors. Just another 800-year old temple, apparently 🙂

the second temple

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