The Guyanese Celebration of Deepavali, the Festival of Lights
What is Deepavali?
Deepavali is an official holiday in Guyana, celebrating good over evil. It is a five-day festival which has deep-rooted cultural significance. It is a time when people clean their houses, wear new clothes, light lamps and distribute sweets. Children enjoy themselves by playing games and lighting firecrackers.
Deepavali is celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs throughout the world. In addition to Guyana, descendants of Indian immigrants in countries like Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Myanmar, also celebrate Deepavali.
There are several mythological stories related to the origin of Deepavali.
- North Indians celebrate this holiday to mark the return of Raja Shri Ram, after killing the demon Ravana.
- The south Indians relate Deepavali to the killing of Narakasur by Shri Krishna and his wife, Satyabhama.
- Lord Mahavira, who established the Jain dharma, attained nirvana on this day of celebration. His disciple, Gautam swami, found spiritual enlightenment on this special day. Deepavali is a day of spiritual importance to the Jains.
- Sikhs celebrate Deepavali (bandi chorr devas) to mark the return of Guru Hargobind Ji (sixth guru) from prison. He was instrumental in the release of 52 princes from the Gwalior fort. They also consider this day as martyr’s day because Bhai Mani Singh Ji became a martyr to save others. The Harmandir Sahib or the Golden temple is also decorated during this time.
The important days of the Deepavali Festival include:
- Govatsa Dwadashi – Cattle are worshipped to ensure the prosperity of the land. It falls on the 12th day of the Month of Ashvin during the dark phase of the moon.
- Dhanwanthari Trayodashi or dhanteras – The 13th day of the dark phase in the month of Asvin is considered an auspicious day. Gold is bought to ensure prosperity. Household items are also bought on this day. This day is celebrated as the birthday of Dhanwanthari, who is the divine physician. Dhanwanthari is depicted as holding amrit (immortality potion) in his hand. He is worshipped to alleviate diseases.
- Naraka Chadurdashi – Lord Krishna and his consort Satyabhama killed the demon Narakasura and released 10,000 women whom he had held captive. It falls on the fourteenth day of the month of Asvin. South Indians celebrate this day as Deepavali. The eldest person of the family smears oil on others' heads in the early hours of the morning. The members of the family take a bath and wear new clothes which are kept in the prayer room. This is the most eventful day of the festival where all of the fun activities like fireworks, gift giving, and sweet-tasting (found below) take place.
- Lakshmy Puja – Lakshmy is the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Lakshmy puja is considered the most important day of Deepavali in north India. The Hindus offer puja to Lakshmy Devi and Lord Ganesha who removes obstacles to ensure a prosperous year ahead. It falls on the fifthteenth day of Asvin.
- Govardhan Puja – The first day of the month of Kartika and the beginning of the bright phase of the moon is celebrated as Govardhan puja day. On this day Lord Krishna lifted Mount Govardhan to save the people from heavy rain and thunder.
- Bhaidhuj – Brothers visit their married sisters on this day which falls on the second day of kartika. Lord Yama visited his sister the river Yamuna and gave her gifts. She in turn, cooked him a delicious meal. Yama visited his sister on dwitiya (the second), so it is also known as Yama dwitiya.
Special Celebrations in Guyana
Guyana is a Caribbean country that was integrated into the British Empire in the year 1836 as British Guiana. Indian workers were brought into this country under the system of contract labor. The country was declared independent in the year 1966.
The Indo Guyanese strive to maintain their cultural heritage as they celebrate festivals like Deepavali and Holi. A large number of temples have been built by them to practice their religious beliefs.
Deepavali is anxiously awaited with great enthusiasm by the Guyanese people. The differences in race and religion are forgotten and people turn up in large numbers to join the festivities.
The Lamps and Decorations
Some families in Berbice and Wakenaam have been making the traditional lamps for Deepavali for years. These lamps are lit in the evenings during the festival. Rangoli competitions are held between various departments in the Guyanese university system every year. Bamboo frames are put up in the streets for the lamps to be placed on. The houses and streets are lit with these lamps so that goddess Lakshmy can find her way to the houses to grant the boon of prosperity. The soot from the lamps is collected to make kajal, which is applied to babies to ward off evil eye.
Hindus abstain from meat, sex and alcohol days before Deepavali. People whitewash the tree trunks and clean their houses. On the day Deepavali begins, Lakshmy puja is performed. Flowers are used to decorate the front door of houses and people wear new clothes and visit temples to pray. It is quite the special occasion.
The East Indians or the Indo Guyanese prepare sweets like phulorie, goja, gulgula, kheer, mithai, pera and burfi. Children are able to eat a variety of sweets without restriction on Deepavali day. They visit houses of neighbors and friends to gift sweets.
The Parade of Floats
The spectacular event associated with the Guyanese Deepavali is the motorcade show (float parade). It is conducted by the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha. Steel and wood materials are used to make huge floats which are decorated with fabrics, jewelry and lights and are usually sponsored by corporate houses. The parade of floats is one of the competitions held during this occasion as various temples take part in it. Many people travel to Guyana just to watch this extravagant parade.
The Fireworks and Competitions
Depavali is a festival that is enjoyed by all children. They are allowed to light firecrackers, play games and wear new clothes as well. Fireworks like the hand-held (cone crackers, sparklers) and rockets are set off in the evening. Greeting cards are exchanged to symbolize goodwill. Children also compete, unofficially, to make the best rangoli patterns and decorations for their houses. Various competitions like the best dressed, best firecracker display, musical chairs and antakshari (Hindi film song competition) are held every year to add to the festivities.
The Deepavali celebration is also known as Depawali, Dewali, Dipavali, Diwali, Divali, Dipotsavi and Dipapratipad. Deepavali spreads the message of love and friendship and is celebrated to usher prosperity and dispel gloom for the year to come.