Monday, June 16, 2014

[Indian Culture Workshop 2013-2014] Session 5: Festival of Lights- Diwali: Gender and Family

Session# 5: Festival of Lights- Diwali: Gender and Family
Speaker: Ms. Meera Rhoria

Ms Meera Rhoria was the speaker for the seminar on Diwali. She explained that, like Lunar New Year is one of the most important festivals in Chinese societies, the equivalent festival for Indians Is Diwali. Diwali is also called the festival of lights.  It is the biggest and most important festival of the year, and it gets its name from the row of oil lamps that Indians put outside their homes for the festival. These lights symbolize the inner light that protects people from spiritual darkness. It originated as a celebration that marks the last harvest of the year before winter. That is to say, the day after Diwali is the beginning of a new financial year. Thus, it is sometimes known as the Indian New Year.

Ms Rhoria said that if you travel to India during Diwali, you will have a very special experience-- lots of stores will be closed, but you will find tons of beautiful lights outside the homes.

Indians celebrate Diwali with family gatherings, glittering clay lamps, festive fireworks, strings of electric light bulbs, flowers, sweets, and of course the worship of Lakshmi—the goddess of wealth. Like the Chinese worship Choi Sun (the god of wealth), Indians believe that Lakshmi wanders the Earth looking for homes where she will be welcomed. People open their doors, windows, and most importantly, turn on the lights to invite Lakshmi in.

Meera also discussed how Diwali is related to gender relations and the concept of the family in Indian culture. While the celebration of Diwali symbolizes the importance of the family in Indian culture, the preparation work for Diwali reflects some of the gender preferences in Indian culture—women take care of the private sector, whereas men take care of the public sector. For Diwali, it is women who do most of the cooking and decoration, while men only occasionally help out.

Meera brought with her a silver chest and various decorations used for the altar at home, and demonstrated for us how the religious rituals are carried out in Indian homes. She explained that offerings are put in front of the family altar, or in front of the statue or picture of the goddess. These include flowers, fresh fruits, nuts, and sweets. Sweets, especially desserts made with flour, rice, and sugar are most important, as Indians believe that gods and goddesses love sweetness. As they offer the sweets to the goddess, worshippers pray to her for blessings throughout the year.

At the altar of Diwali, there are some gold or silver coins. Meera reminded us that this should not be misunderstood as  praying for money or being a bribe for the goddess. In fact, these coins or gold pieces are used to symbolize the rewards or results of hard work, which indeed share the same meaning as fruits and other offerings. People use them to thank the goddess for her blessings that have led them to success.

Ms. Meera Rhoria (front, 3rd from left) sharing on the cultural meaning of Diwali—the festival of lights 

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