Family, tradition and celebration: The essence of Indian festivals


Michelle Liu

As October rolls around the corner, billions of Hindus begin the annual preparations to honor the traditions specific to Navaratri, Dussehra and Diwali, the main Indian festivals during fall.

Women adorned in jewelry and draped in yards of colorful silk around the waist and shoulder, known as the traditional saree, vividly complement an assortment of brightly colored Indian sweets and snacks lining the table. Sticky little hands demolish the tower of sweet morsels, which range from ladoo, a sugary flour ball speckled with nuts, to murukku, a crunchy, swirl-shaped treat made from chickpeas. 

As the gathering moves into the living room, the focus falls on the golu display, a towering festive arrangement of clay dolls and figurines representing Hindu figures and gods. The golu dolls, along with the presence of traditional foods and music, were held in celebration of Dussehra, the celebratory party that ends one of the most significant festivals for Hindu devotees: Navaratri.

As October rolls around the corner, billions of Hindus begin the annual preparations to honor the traditions specific to Navaratri, Dussehra and Diwali, the main Indian festivals during fall.

Navaratri is a function dedicated to the divine feminine goddess Devi, or Durga “the invincible,” a protector and source of positive energy for Hindus. The golu presentation is more prevalent to those who hail from south India, while north Indians and Nepalians create pandals, temporary shrines built in the community. Navaratri, which contains the root word “nava” meaning “nine” in Hindi, spans over nine days; this year, festivities began on Sunday, Sept. 28 and ended on Oct. 7. 

Some worshippers believe in meditative fasting during Navaratri, which includes strict diets composed of fruits, nuts, milk and a few flour products. For Indian families such as Aaditya Gulati’s (10), fasting, along with bathing and cleansing every day, is a method to remove all the dirt and evil accumulated throughout the year and to purify themselves in respect to the deities. 

“Along with the other rituals, the food that we eat has to be prepared for the deities as well, and a lamp needs to be lit in every morning for all nine days to represent good and holiness,” Aaditya said.

After nine sacred days of religious piety, Dussehra, which occurred yesterday, commences with joyous celebrations of singing and dancing and food preparation. In celebration of Durga’s defeat of evil as well as appreciation for her protection, devotees burn a small statue of Ravana, an evil god with 10 heads and the main antagonist of the Indian folklore behind Navaratri. 

“Like most Indian festivals, there’s going to be a lot of life and color during Dussehra,” Aaditya said. “The sweets and fruits are a huge part, but we also always wear and decorate the parties with a ton of colors to represent the fact that there’s so much positive energy fighting against evil and we have succeeded in purifying and cleansing ourselves of evil.”

 During the Dussehra celebration, devotees also honor the deities that safeguard them through traditional Indian dance known as garba or dandia, a folk dance performed with short wooden sticks. 

Minali Kapadia (10), who has practiced dandia for over 10 years with her family, appreciates that she can stay connected to her culture through traditional rituals as well as utilize the opportunity to introduce Indian culture to other people.

“My favorite part of Indian holidays other than the food is the ability to feel super included in a community, which is something that we are not really able to do on a daily basis,” Minali said. 

Similarly, Diwali, known as the “festival of lights,” is another trademark Hindu festivity, from Oct. 27 to Nov. 1, that emphasizes community and family unity against symbolic forces of dark and evil. 

Diwali directly translates to ‘row of lights’ and tells the love story and gripping saga of Sita and Rama, who eventually found their way back together by lighting rows of clay lamps despite being initially separated by the evil god Ravana. 

Anu Datar, upper school computer science teacher who practices Hindu traditions, recalls the first 36 years of her life spent in India where she and her family celebrated Diwali with careful preparation. 

As a child, Datar performed rituals and traditions such as buying new clothes, bathing in scented pastes and oils before sunrise, making ladoo and chakli sweets, and bursting fireworks, all with her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts together. However, without the endless family members that played such integral roles in creating the familiar rituals and festivities back in India, Datar finds different ways to continue and preserve her traditions. 

“I’ve definitely cut down [on Diwali preparations]; I just make a couple things,” Datar said. “In India, it was a communal effort, and [that] makes things a lot easier, but I wouldn’t say the significance or importance of Diwali has gone down because for me, it’s a very very important festival. I just cut down on the amount of things I do.”

Datar also realizes the significance of emphasizing traditional Indian holidays such as Diwali and continues tradition by exposing her culture and childhood to her own children. 

“I feel that it’s not just me. My kids otherwise would not know about any of these [traditions] because they have not spent any Diwali in India,” Datar said. “I feel that they’re losing out on a lot of important cultural things that they should be aware of, and as people of Indian origin, I want them to be aware of these things and stay connected to what was important for me and my parents and generations before that.”