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How a vibrant festival, celebrated by over a billion people, became a more personal and intimate experience during COVID-19.

Behind the Scenes: Diwali

Alpha 7R IV | FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM | 31 mm | 1/25 sec | F2.8 | ISO 1000

Alpha 7R IV | FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM | 31 mm | 1/25 sec | F2.8 | ISO 1000

Decorating the doorsteps with Rangoli patterns to invite prosperity

An air of anticipation and excitement marks the weeks leading up to Diwali, India’s Festival of Lights. Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit word Deepavali which means row of lights. It’s generally called Deepavali in South India and the Sanskrit word has been modified to Diwali by North Indians. This is also the beginning of a new year for many families. This year, the usual excitement was missing as concerns of the pandemic had dampened spirits. As in every year, the homes are spring-cleaned, painted, de-cluttered, and made more aesthetic. Gargantuan decorative designs of Rangoli are used to adorn the entrance and the courtyards as a gesture to welcome Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune. Colored rice flour or powdered quartz and flower petals are used to make these decorative patterns. They may be geometric or in the shape of flowers or deities, and lamps are placed on them to signify the triumph of light over darkness.

Alpha 7R IV | FE 70–200 mm F2.8 GM | 70 mm | 1/100 sec | F2.8 | ISO 500

Alpha 7R IV | FE 70–200 mm F2.8 GM | 70 mm | 1/100 sec | F2.8 | ISO 500

Adorning the doorways

People spruce up their homes before Diwali as it is believed that Goddess Lakshmi enters only a clean and sparkling home. One of the important things is a toran which is a symbolic string hung above the arch of the entrance door to ward off evil, shower blessings on those who pass under it, and greet the Goddess. It may be made of natural flowers and mango leaves, or store-bought with glitzy mirror work, beads, embroidery, or decorative designs. 

Alpha 9 II | FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM | 61 mm | 1/80 sec | F2.8 | ISO 1250

Alpha 9 II | FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM | 61 mm | 1/80 sec | F2.8 | ISO 1250

Finding light in dark times

Diyas (earthen lamps) are lit to weaken ‘evil forces’ and dispel darkness. The dates of this festival are based on the Hindu lunar calendar, which marks each month by the time it takes the moon to orbit Earth. Lighting a diya or lamp is part of a daily ritual in most households as well as religious festivals and at the start of anything auspicious. Homes are decorated with small diyas placed at boundaries and entrances. 

The lighting of diyas was especially poignant this year as it felt like a cleansing or the start of a new beginning after a difficult year.

Alpha 7R IV | FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM | 27 mm | 1/60 sec | F2.8 | ISO 2000

Alpha 7R IV | FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM | 27 mm | 1/60 sec | F2.8 | ISO 2000

The importance of diyas

At a deeper philosophical level, the oil in the diya symbolizes the negativity in the human mind such as greed, envy, and hate. The cotton in the diya represents the soul. When the oil is burnt by the wick, the diya provides illumination or light. 

Diyas are hand-crafted earthen lamps with cotton wicks soaked in ghee or oil. Generally, the earthen diyas are bought two weeks prior to the festival and then soaked in water until they are saturated and can take the oil better. 

Diyas now come embellished with painted patterns and mirrors. They can also range from the single-spout diyas to multi-spout diyas. Well-illuminated houses, balconies, parks, and public places make up the shimmering kaleidoscope of colors on Diwali night.

Alpha 9 II | FE 16–35 mm F2.8 GM | 16 mm | 1/80 sec | F2.8 | ISO 2000

Alpha 9 II | FE 16–35 mm F2.8 GM | 16 mm | 1/80 sec | F2.8 | ISO 2000

Preparing the Puja Thali

As part of the festivities, an elaborate puja (ritual) is performed, praying for good health, wealth, and prosperity. The puja thali is a decorated tray made of metals like copper or silver, arranged with betel leaf, flowers, lighted diyas, or lamps, coconut, sweets, camphor, haldi, or turmeric, vermillion, and sacred red thread which is tied around the wrist as a blessing. 

Alpha 7R IV | FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM | 32 mm | 1/80 sec | F3.2 | ISO 1000

Alpha 7R IV | FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM | 32 mm | 1/80 sec | F3.2 | ISO 1000

Performing the Puja

Incense is burnt, and an arti (circling the idol and chanting a prayer) is performed with the puja thali. Prayers asking for the prosperity and wellbeing of the family and the community are said. It is also a custom for the wife to put the red tikka (a mark) on the forehead of her husband, garland him, and do his "Aarti" with a prayer for his long life.

Alpha 9 II | FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM | 70 mm | 1/80 sec | F4.5 | ISO 800

Alpha 9 II | FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM | 70 mm | 1/80 sec | F4.5 | ISO 800

Dressing for Diwali

It is normal to wear new clothes for the festival. Diwali is a major shopping period for Indians and this year, many took advantage of online shopping from the safety of their homes. Men dress in traditional kurtas and sometimes dhotis, and it’s the time of the year when women love to show off their best ethnic wear, like colorful silk sarees and lehengas (skirts), worn with gold jewelry. Kids are also dressed in their traditional finery. Women decorate their hands with henna designs before the festival. In South India, people rise before dawn to have an oil bath before wearing their new clothes.

Alpha 7R IV | FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM | 24 mm | 1/160 sec | F3.5 | ISO 1000

Alpha 7R IV | FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM | 24 mm | 1/160 sec | F3.5 | ISO 1000

The small details 

A bindi, a colored dot worn on the center of the forehead by women, is an important cultural symbol in India—said to retain energy and strengthen concentration and represent the third eye. Hindus use the Tikka ceremony as a mark of honor and to welcome to guests or someone important, or as a blessing on special occasions. Husbands may mark their wife’s forehead with vermillion, or a bindi (a dot) and sisters may apply it to their brother’s foreheads to bless them in a ceremony called Bhai Dooj celebrated on the day after Diwali.

Alpha 9 II | FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM | 34 mm | 1/80 sec | F3.5 | ISO 320

Alpha 9 II | FE 24–70 mm F2.8 GM | 34 mm | 1/80 sec | F3.5 | ISO 320

Savoring the flavors

Diwali is synonymous with feasting. Since it also marks the end of the harvest season, it’s a time for people to enjoy the bounty of good food together, meet, and exchange gifts. This year, many people opted for video calls to relatives and friends as they couldn’t meet in person. The 5 days of celebration are enjoyed with plenty of traditional dishes, especially sweet treats. A variety of traditional sweets are prepared using flour, semolina, rice, chickpea flour, dry fruit, milk solids (khoya), and clarified butter (ghee) from laddoos (ball-shaped sweets of flour) to pedas (milk-based sweets), and gulab jamuns (deep-fried doughnuts made of dried milk soaked in flavored sugar syrup). 

Diwali gifting remains a feel-good, age-old tradition, with families visiting friends and relatives with boxes of sweets or gourmet hampers, or gifts like household articles. This year, due to COVID-19, many people took advantage of delivery companies to deliver their gifts instead of visiting their loved ones.

Alpha 9 II | FE 16–35 mm F2.8 GM | 16 mm | 1/60 sec | F2.8 | ISO 2000

Alpha 9 II | FE 16–35 mm F2.8 GM | 16 mm | 1/60 sec | F2.8 | ISO 2000

Strengthening family bonds

Diwali is a festival that is synonymous with family get-togethers and rejoicing. Families cook, decorate their houses, pray, and feast together. Many visit friends and temples as a family. In the new normal, most people said no to parties and gatherings and decided to celebrate at home with their families and a few close friends. Traditionally, fireworks were lit by children, supervised by adults. In recent years, many states have banned fireworks because of the concerns of air pollution and families have looked to alternatives such as sky lanterns. Spending quality time with one’s family, sharing photos of celebrations, and being grateful for health and happiness became the essence of a quieter, more reflective Diwali in 2020. 

Behind the Scenes: Diwali

Ashima’s Gear for Diwali

ILCE-9M2
Alpha 9 II

ILCE-9M2

ILCE-7RM4
Alpha 7R IV

ILCE-7RM4

SEL2470GM
FE 24-70 mm F2.8 GM

SEL2470GM

FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM
FE 16-35mm F2.8 GM

SEL1635GM