Diwali is a five-day Hindu festival that this year begins today (November 5th). But the enjoyment of the festival worldwide goes well beyond the circle of observant Hindus. In India , Sri Lanka , and among Indian immigrants to the Caribbean, the U.S., Australia , and Southeast Asia , the gala event is celebrated by individuals of many religions, including Sikhs, Jains, and Zoroastrians. The holiday is becoming popular among non-Indians, too, in places like the Richmond Hill, Queens, neighborhood of New York City, where everyone is swept up in the excitement of the nonstop street festivals and parades.
As with many holidays, Diwali commemorates a broad range of events in Hindu scriptures, most prominently the marriage of Lord Vishnu and Lakshmi (not Padma, but the goddess of wealth and prosperity). Some make the elephant-headed god Ganesh the center of attention, while others celebrate Kali, the goddess of strength. The precise focus of the shindig is thus up to you. The climax of Diwali occurs on the third day, the Festival of Lights, marked by fireworks and the lighting of candles and diyas, which are clay lamps with cotton wicks, traditionally fueled with ghee (clarified butter).
In common with most religious holidays, there are foods associated with the festival, mainly snacks and sweet treats, which vary according to group and geographic location. On the BBC website, blogger Cyrus Todiwala, a Zoroastrian, provides a thumbnail guide to the foods of Diwali, which include puran poli (a flatbread stuffed with sweetened crushed lentils), karanji (a round pastry filled with coconut), chiwada (beaten rice cooked on a griddle with things like nuts, chiles, and fried vermicelli), and badaam paak (almond fudge). (Links to recipes for the sweets are also included in the BBC story.)
In Queens , the Festival of Lights is the occasion for a gala parade, in which Hindu temples from around the city vie to build the best float. Members of the respective congregations ride on the floats, and shopkeepers and café owners come to the floats to offer the celebrants food, principally such small snacks as the fritters called pakora and potato-stuffed triangular turnovers known as samosas. One key aspect of the Richmond Hill celebration is the throwing of colored powders, which cover parade-goers and passersby alike, and add to the excitement of the celebration. Most of the participants are Indians whose families emigrated to Trinidad and other Caribbean islands as long as 100 years ago, but kept the faith alive both there, and when they more recently emigrated to New York -- making for a welter of practices and influences added to an already complicated holiday. Better to just sit back and enjoy it. Have a samosa and throw some red powder on your friends. Happy Diwali!
(To create a Diwali-inspired meal of your own, check out KitchenDaily's recipes for Indian food.)