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Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Celebrating Diwali Outside India

Celebrating Diwali Outside India/ © Partha Sarathi Sahana

Growing up in India, Diwali, or Deepawali, meaning festival of lights, was the most anticipated day of the year. Diwali meant new clothes, lots of delicious treats, lighting lamps/lights, setting off a gazillion fireworks, a sparklingly clean home and vacation from school that lasted around 10 days.


There are multiple religious stories that signify the origin of Diwali. The one I heard in my family was that Diwali marks the return of dear Prince Ram from his 14 years of exile in the jungle where he led a sage-like life, devoid of any luxuries. His wife, Sita, and younger brother, Laksman, accompanied him in exile where they fought a demon who had abducted Sita, leading to the epic Ramayan. So on the day of Diwali when the Prince returned, the commoners illuminated the entire city with oil lamps, cooked lavish feasts and sang his praises to celebrate his return. Another aspect of this festival is that this is the day Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth) visits her devotees; we therefore do pooja in the form of worshipping everything that is valuable, from regular money to gold, phones, wallets, house keys and cars. The main day of Diwali occurs on the third day of a five-day sequence of festivals. Every year it falls on a different day as the festival dates are based on the Hindu calendar, which is primarily lunar.


Over the years Diwali has changed for me since I am not in India anymore. It’s hard to feel it is Diwali, living in a country that does not celebrate it. For the past seven years, I have decided to take that day off because you cannot fit in a festival on a work day. As I have been away from India for over 12 years, I don’t even remember all the things we used to do.


But now that I have a toddler whom I am raising as a practicing Hindu, I have to relearn traditions or at least create our own Diwali rituals, which hinges on what I can accomplish in my already limited time as a working mom. In India, families cook together, household help manages the inside-out cleaning, and everyone has time off from work (which actually has decreased drastically for people in India). In the U.S., we do our best to clean the weekend before. If can move furniture and dust every single corner, we do. If not, at least the beds have clean sheets and the most visible areas are shining, de-cluttered, vaccummed, mopped, smell scented and have fresh flowers.


As for cooking, I used to make only a small quantity of the special Diwali treats (being health conscious and all), but now that my little girl is showing a strong preference for sweets, I decided to cook few things but in big quantities this year. For fireworks, since we are not able to set off all types of big and small firecrackers as in India (no fire codes to follow over there!), we do sparkle sticks and roll cap crackers.


On the day of Diwali, we bathe early, wear clean clothes, cook treats, make rangoli (a powder based floor art), and wait for the evening. In the evening we wear new/fancy clothes, start the pooja, light lots of oil lamps and motif candles, eat a lavish dinner of poor, paneer-aloo subji, rajma, pulao, bhajiya, ladoo and custard, and set off fireworks. Then the phone calls begin to family and friends all over the world wishing them a joyous Diwali and wishes for a prosperous New Year.


Over the years Diwali has taken on new meanings for me from a little girl who bounced around to now a mom of a little girl whom I hope gets equally excited on Diwali. Although challenging to create the same atmosphere for Diwali in the U.S., we are determined to pass on our culture with as much integrity as possible.

© 2012 – 2013, Dipti Mudgal. All rights reserved.

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Dipti Mudgal was born and raised in India and moved to the U.S. after marriage. She has a doctorate in Pschology and currently works part-time in the Boston area. She and her husband have a toddler daughter whom they are raising bilingual in Hindi and are trying to give the best of both of their homes.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsSharyn   |  Wednesday, 14 November 2012 at 12:06 pm

    Thanks for writing up this piece! My husband moved here from India 15 years ago and hasn’t done much in terms of celebrating Hindu holidays since he’s been here. Now we have a 8 month old baby and are trying to figure out how to incorporate celebrations and other parts of Indian culture into our family traditions. A bit of a challenge since my cultural knowledge of India is limited, but I feel like it will be important for our son to have some connection to his dad’s culture. We live in the Boston area too. Maybe we could connect via email?

  2. CommentsDipti   |  Thursday, 15 November 2012 at 6:15 am

    So nice to hear from you Sharyn. I can understand the challenge. I am from India and still find it difficult. I would love to connect with you and your family.

  3. CommentsSusan   |  Tuesday, 08 October 2013 at 12:53 pm

    Thank you for your article about celebrating Divali in the US. I have recently become engaged to a man who was born in the US but his parents were born in Norhern india and are very traditional. We have know each other for five years and his parents have always been very accepting of me. From the very beginning I have tried to follow their traditions and customs. I am white but it is really important to me to celebrate and observe all the Indian holidays in our new home. We do not live in the same city as his parent’s so I am doing my best to learn on my own. I would really appreciate any books you could recommend, or websites, especially now at the start of our engagement followed by our wedding.

    Thank you

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