Diwali 101: how to celebrate the festival of lights

Diwali is one of the greatest celebrations of South Asian cultures and at least one Edmontonian invites others to attend.

Shaminder Parmar leads a Diwali 101 class from Meadows Recreation Centre. After growing up in Brooklyn, NY, he wanted to bring more cultural openness to his home in southeast Edmonton.

“We have so many different communities here,” Parmar said Radio Active by CBC. “But I don’t think we know as much about each other as we might.”

Over the course of two years, he answered the basics of the Festival of Lights to more than 2,000 people online and in person.

radioactive8:25Diwali preparation

Diwali celebrations begin on October 24th when the new moon is at its darkest. The festival is a celebration of light that often includes: fireworks. Shaminder Parmar hails from Laurel Parish.

What is Diwali?

The word Diwali means “row of lamps” in Sanskrit.

It takes place in October or November as a multi-day festival. This year the main date falls on October 24, when the new moon is at its darkest.

“The main purpose is light,” Parmar said.

“So if you have lights, if you have gatherings and if you have fun – these are the things you need for Diwali.”

Where does it come from?

“The thing about India is that Diwali is celebrated in a thousand different ways by many cultures for different reasons,” Parmar said. “It’s supposed to be an inclusive celebration.”

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In Hinduism, the holiday is a celebration of Lord Rama’s victory over the demon king Ravana, and the focus is on celebrating the triumph of good over evil.

A man is standing, wearing a long sleeve floral print tunic.  He sits on a laptop and presents himself to an audience behind the camera.  A PowerPoint presentation with a slide that says Diwali 101 is playing on a TV screen behind him.
Shaminder Parmar conducts his Diwali 101 course. Since its launch in 2021, it has introduced more than 2,000 people to the history and meaning behind the Festival of Lights. (Submitted by Shaminder Parmar)

For followers of Jainism, this holiday is about marking the attainment of Nirvana for their Lord Mahavir and celebrating knowledge.

Along with Diwali, the Sikh holiday Bandi Chhor Divas is also celebrated, which focuses on freedom and the triumph of good. Parmar says the name means “Liberation Day”.

How do you party?

With a focus on light, it’s no surprise that fireworks are at play – but Diwali celebrations are just as diverse as the communities involved.

Prayers and events are held in Hindu Mandirs and Sikh Gurdwaras around the world.

“When they go to these religious places, they meditate, volunteer in the community kitchen, they sing and chant hymns,” Parmar said.

The events start days before Amavaysa – the new moon day – and offerings are made, including sweets and goods.

A diya, candle being lit outside a Sikh temple in Whitehorse. diwali The lights represent the triumph of light over darkness and the power of good over evil. (Danielle d’Entremont/CBC)

There are also worldly activities. In Rangoli, people use colored powders or sand to create designs. While there are traditional patterns, there are also modern interpretations of the practice.

“I’ve seen people make Superman,” Parmar said.

People also make clay lamps called diyas and dress in colorful clothes. There are celebrations and dinners all over Edmonton – even Diwali parties in nightclubs.

“Light, gathering and fun are the three things,” he said. “And the fun is the one that’s so flexible and personal.”

What’s up with the desserts?

Restaurants and candy stores in Edmonton produce millions of candies for Diwali each year, filling decorated boxes.

“It’s like many western cultures, bring flowers for almost every occasion,” Parmar explained.

“In South Asian culture, not bringing candy to a party, baby birth, or birthday is almost disrespectful.”

Ganesh Sweets is an Indian sweet shop in southeast Edmonton that is packed during Diwali.

“Let’s say whatever we do in a month, we’d do a tape like that in two days,” said director Ashu Arora.

That equates to around 50,000 to 60,000 boxes of candy a day.

One shop is decked out for Diwali, with gold tassels hanging from the ceiling and purple helium balloons floating and saying Happy Diwali.  More than a dozen shoppers navigate stacks of candy and boxes.  In the front of the photograph is a tray of twisted fried dough dipped in sugar syrup, which is bright orange in color.
Ganesh Foods in Edmonton’s Mill Woods neighborhood says they do a month’s worth of business in just a few days during Diwali. The Indian sweets are an important part of the celebration. (Submitted by Ashu Arora)

Treats range from burfi, a dense milk-based sweet, to gulab jamun, a fried rosewater donut. Jalebi – a fried sweet made from Maida flour – is soaked in milk and used as an offering at Diwali celebrations.

“It’s a collective day that everyone celebrates,” Arora said. “That’s why it’s such a big, big thing.”

How can you appreciate (and not appropriately)?

Parmer emphasizes that Diwali is an inclusive festival.

The Vancouver Canucks have released a special Diwali pre-match jersey by artist Sandeep Johal, and locally the Edmonton Public School Board is working on a multi-religious calendar to include the holiday.

Born and raised in North America, Parmar only learned about western holidays in school. He says changes like this will hopefully inspire others to share their celebrations.

Through Diwali 101 he offers others an education he never got.

“If there had been that presentation as a kid, I would have learned so much more about my own culture and felt so much more confident in being who I am,” he said.

“It’s included. One does not have to be of South Asian descent to attend Diwali as the theme is simply the practice of kindness.”

It’s enough if you can dabble in light, he says, and show some of your own this season.

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