Triumph of light over darkness: Students, faculty celebrate Diwali


Provided by Anu Datar

From left to right, upper school science department chair Anita Chetty, upper school chemistry teacher Dr. Mala Raghavan, computer science teacher Anu Datar, attendance coordinator Ritu Raj, upper school mathematics teacher Dr. Anu Aiyer and upper school computer science teacher Marina Peregrino dress in traditional garments to celebrate Diwali. This year, the holiday occurred on Nov. 5.

by Emma Gao and Isha Moorjani

Upper school math teacher Dr. Anu Aiyer wears a sari of wrapped deep purple cloth with a strip of golden embroidery, a piece of the fabric falling behind her shoulder. With her hands lightly pressed together before her, she closes her eyes and a serene expression settles over her face. To celebrate the festival of Diwali, several female upper school teachers wore similar traditional outfits on Nov. 5.

Diwali, a religious festival celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists, begins on the 13th day of the lunar month Kartika and spans five days. This year, Diwali lasted from Nov. 2 to 6. The word “diwali” originates from “deepavali,” which means “a row of lights.” Commonly associated with Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity, Diwali celebrates the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. According to Hindu mythology, in northern India, Diwali marks the day that Lord Rama, an avatar of the god Vishnu, returned to his homeland after an exile of 14 years, and in southern India, it celebrates the day Krishna, a major deity, defeated the legendary king Narakasura.

“One of the main stories is that it’s related to Lord Rama coming back from the forest,” upper school chemistry teacher Dr. Mala Raghavan said. “The South Indians also look at another thing called Naraka Chaturdashi. Narakasura was a demon who was killed by the gods, and one of the boons that he asked the God before he died [and] was going to go under the ground where there [is] darkness, he said, “Let the world outside be celebrated with lights.”

Common traditions during Diwali include the wearing of new clothes, and as a personal tradition, Dr. Raghavan wears a sari, a decorative draped garment, every Diwali. In the past, she has worn her mother’s new saris as well as those from her other relatives.

Traditional homemade foods for Diwali sit on a table in upper school chemistry teacher Dr. Mala Raghavan’s home. From right to left, the foods are thengole, almond and kaju barfi, muruku and madras mixture. (Provided by Mala Raghavan)

“I used to always wear a sari, inaugurate one of the saris of my mom’s, a new one that she would get,” Dr. Raghavan said. “So I still wear a sari during Diwali, that’s very specific. Wearing new clothes was something that’s traditional with the Diwali celebration, but of course, I don’t always buy a new sari, but this time, I happen to have a new sari which my sister has given [me].”

The setting off of firecrackers during Diwali, another popular tradition, symbolizes the victory of light over darkness. Sriram Bhimaraju (10) describes the different kinds of fireworks his family uses, from those that shoot a few feet into the air and others that explode into vibrant colors when thrown on the ground.

To celebrate Diwali, upper school mathematics teacher Dr. Anuradha Aiyer follows popular traditions such as wearing new clothes and cooking sweets but also incorporates her own twists. Every year, she challenges herself to cook one new sweet: her extensive repertoire now includes Gulab Jamun, a solid milk-based ball with the consistency of dough, varieties of Burfi and Laddu as well as Mysore Pak. Dr. Raghavan’s family also makes traditional South Indian foods such as Thengole, Muruku, and Barfi. Every year, Aiyer’s family plays an important role in her cooking process.

“[Diwali] is a time for families to get together,” Aiyer said. “It’s a symbol of prosperity, of good health, and you want to celebrate and be grateful for all those things.”

Growing up in the south Indian state of Kerala, Aiyer practiced traditions such as waking up early and showering before receiving new clothes. After moving to the U.S., she still maintains several of the same practices, but since the distance from India reduces the presence of Diwali celebrations, Aiyer has started new traditions to rekindle the same feeling of community she felt at home. Every year, she creates gift bags of sweet and savory foods to exchange with friends.

“When I was growing up, the whole neighborhood would all just be festive,” Aiyer said. “[The celebration] was pervasive. And so you bring some of that by just saying, ‘Oh, let’s meet. Let’s exchange. Let’s light firecrackers. Let’s have dinner together.’ Just bringing that celebration.”

For those who celebrate Diwali from a young age, the festival serves as a constant each year, but Samvita Gautham (11) also notes how her role in the celebration has changed over the years.

“Diwali is a very popular tradition and part of our culture, and it’s something I’ve always celebrated since I was little,” Samvita said. “My mom, every year, she’ll include me more and more in the preparations. It’s just like the small things but they all add up to this feeling of family [and] community that happens a lot.”

I feel fulfilled to meet with all of my relatives and celebrate such a wonderful festival. I feel grateful that there’s this community that I can do these [traditions] with and that there’s so many people just like you who want to celebrate Diwali. I feel included, like I have a place.

— Sriram Bhimaraju (10)

Sriram usually celebrates Diwali with sweet and spicy traditional foods as well as visits to the temple with his family. For Diwali last year, he recalls the joy he felt reconvening with his relatives after several months apart, even though fewer people could attend the celebrations because of pandemic restrictions. A notable moment from that day includes when he showed his younger cousin how to set off fireworks.

“I feel fulfilled to meet with all of my relatives and celebrate such a wonderful festival,” Sriram said. “I feel grateful that there’s this community that I can do these [traditions] with and that there’s so many people just like you who want to celebrate Diwali. I feel included, like I have a place.”

Additional reporting by Sally Zhu.