What Is Diwali? Illuminating the Festival of Lights

The true meaning of Diwali is rich with lights, traditions, and delicious Indian treats.

Updated October 20, 2023
diwali oil lamp

Diwali is the festival of lights, and it dates back more than 2,000 years as the biggest holiday in the Hindu religion. Today, Diwali extends beyond India's borders to the Indian diaspora all over the world. Discover the colorful origins of this five-day holiday, the meaning of Diwali, and how you can add a little light to your life through this festival. 

Meaning of Diwali

The word Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit word Dipavali; dip means "light," and avali means "rows." Therefore, Diwali translates to "rows of lights," which is also the way the holiday is commemorated.

Fast Fact

Every year on Diwali, Hindus decorate their homes with rows of colorful clay oil lamps.

Decorated Diwali lights

Diwali represents the victory of knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and light over darkness. Regardless of your religious affiliation, you can celebrate the holiday to honor these themes. In fact, Diwali is such a large holiday in India that non-Hindus partake in the celebrations, much like how non-Christians in the US often have a Christmas tree in their homes.

Diwali's Origins

Diwali is the most significant holiday in India, and different regions in India have their own version of the story of how Diwali originated.

  • In Northern India, Hindus believe that Lord Rama (an incarnation of the Hindu protector god Vishnu) rescued his wife Sita, who had been kidnapped by the evil Sri Lankan king Ravana. People then welcomed Rama and Sita by lighting their path so they could find their way home.
  • In the southern part of India, Hindus believe that Krishna (another incarnation of Vishnu) freed a group of girls and women from another evil king.
  • In the western Indian states, such as Gujrat, their New Year transpires alongside Diwali. Therefore, they mostly associate the holiday with the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity.
  • In the eastern part of India, Hindus associate Diwali with the goddess Kali, who symbolizes the victory of good over evil.
Hindu goddess Lakshmi

Five Festive Days of Diwali

The festival of Diwali follows the Indian calendar (which is a lunar calendar) and begins during the darkest day of the year. This falls somewhere between the middle of October and the middle of November and lasts for five days

Day 1: Dhanteras

The first day of the festival consists of the ritual cleaning of the home and decorating parts of the home with rangoli designs made from flowers and colored sand and rice. Indians clean and decorate their homes and keep the windows and doors open as a way to welcome the goddess Lakshmi for wealth and prosperity. It's also customary on this day to purchase small items of gold. 

Fast Fact

Dhan means wealth, and teras means thirteenth, marking the thirteenth day of the darkest fortnight and the first day of Diwali.

rangoli design

Day 2: Naraka Chaturdashi

The second day of Diwali celebrates Lord Krishna's destruction of the demon Narakasura and the freeing of 16,000 girls and women he imprisoned. This is also a day when Hindus pray to their ancestors, visit family and friends, purchase or make festive sweets, and exchange gifts.Krishna Statue Against Blue Sky

Day 3: Lakshmi Puja

Day three is the most significant day of Diwali and is an official holiday in India. It's the day when people decorate their homes with lit divas or clay lamps filled with oil. A lot of people still follow this tradition today, but electric lights are also used.

Celebrants wear new, or their best, clothes and jewelry in preparation for puja, or ritual, performed in honor of the goddess Lakshmi. It's also customary for younger members of the family to visit their grandparents and other elder members of the community on this day. 

family making floral rangoli for Diwali celebration

Day 4: Govardhan Puja

This day is also known as Padwa and is New Year's Day on the Indian calendar. Traditionally, the bond between wife and husband is celebrated on this day. In some regions, husbands will give their wives gifts, and in other regions, families will invite newlyweds to their homes and treat them with gifts and a festive meal.

In various regions of India, Hindus honor Lord Krishna's saving of farmlands from flooding. It's believed that he accomplished this by lifting the Govardhan mountain with just his pinky finger. Hence the day being named Govardhan Puja.

Day 5: Bhai Duj

Bhai Duj literally means "brother's day" and celebrates the brother and sister bond. Some interpret the significance of this day as Lord Krishna visiting his sister Subhadra after defeating the demon Narakasura. On this day, brothers usually travel to visit their sisters and their families. Sisters perform the ritual of feeding their brothers a couple of bites of food by hand and receive gifts from their brothers in return.

Festival of Food

As with any festival, Diwali involves a spread of tasty foods. Usually, people eat sweet and savory snacks during the day to celebrate. And then, in the evening, they'll enjoy a full Diwali meal. 

Diwali food

Common Diwali Snacks

Some common sweets enjoyed during Diwali include:

  • Karanji: a coconut fritter made by rolling out flour dough in a small circle, putting a coconut mixture down the middle, folding it over into the shape of a half moon, and finally, frying in oil
  • Laddu: made with semolina, sugar, and milk solids and rolled and pressed into balls
  • Barfi: made from nuts such as cashews or pistachios and shaped into diamond bars that are often covered with incredibly thin layers of silver and gold
  • Shrikhand: made from milk and flavored with cardamom and saffron, it has a pudding-like texture
  • Kheer: rice pudding or pudding made from very thin and small semolina noodles, also flavored with cardamom and saffron
  • Gulab jamun: fried dumplings scented with cardamom and served in a rose- and saffron-flavored syrup

A few common savory snacks include:

  • Batata vada: fried potato fritters served with spicy mint chutney
  • Samosa: fried potato fritters that are seasoned a bit differently and shaped in triangles
  • Chokoli: made from a dough of lentil flour, pressed out into a spiral shape and fried
Person with platter of Diwali sweets

The Diwali Meal

The traditional Diwali meal varies from region to region in India, but in the western state of Maharashtra, a typical meal consists of:

  • Puri: small, round pieces of fried bread
  • Biryani: spicy vegetable rice
  • Batata bhaji: a potato curry
  • Papad: thin sheets of lentil that are fried
Fast Fact

Sweet desserts are served along with the other dishes, not at the end of the meal, like in many other cultures.

Light the Way

Life isn't easy for anyone, and festive celebrations provide fun and comfort during the colder months. Light can also represent hope amidst the darkness, so extend your holiday season by celebrating Diwali and adding a "festival of lights" to your own home.

What Is Diwali? Illuminating the Festival of Lights