One of the large festivals celebrated in Singapore is the Festival of Lights by the Hindus, also known as “Deepavali” or “Diwali”. I thought it might be good to write on this for the benefit of those who are planning a trip to Singapore and would like to be in the city during one of the many festivals being celebrated.
What is Deepavali?
The common misconception is that Deepavali is an Indian New Year. “Deepa” comes from the word “Deepam” which means light, and “Avali” means ” row of lights”. Thus, leading to “Festival of Lights”. In short, the Festival celebrates the victory of good over evil. There are legends behind this grand celebration – of which, one remains popular. It is believed that a long time ago, the kingdom of Pradyoshapuram was ruled by Narakasura – a demon. Under the demon rule, the villagers were made to suffer in hardship. The people of the village were either tortured, or kidnapped and imprisoned in the palace of the demon – especially the females. It is believed that Lord Krishna was determined to end the cruelty and destroyed Narakasura. The day Narakasura was killed has since been celebrated as Deepavali – hence, the celebration of the victory of Lord Krishna (the good) over Narakasura (the evil).
What happens during deepavali?
Close to a month prior to the day of the Festival, which typically falls around end October or early November, the streets of Little India in Singapore are decorated and lit in bright colours. In fact, the Member of Parliament who has the area in his constituency, would be invited to launch the light up of the streets, which would go on for a couple of months.
The shops which sell Sarees, Punjabi Suits and Lenghas – traditional wear of the Indian women, would be bustling with the latest trends for the season, in a variety of colours. Sarees are usually nine yards in length and come in various materials – cotton, rayon, silk, etc and can be worn in different styles, with a short top and a petticoat skirt worn beneath. It is often joked that even with nine yards draped around the Indian woman, she exudes gracefulness, ease and appears sexy. Punjabi suits or Salwar kameez are slightly different and more of a long tunic worn over trousers which could be tailored to fit. Lenghas on the other hand, are short tops, worn over slightly grand looking skirts.
Street markets or festive bazaaars would also be set up in Little India, and the mood for the celebration would begin to kick in. The festival stalls would sell varieties of Indian delicacies – laddus, murukku, paal gova, etc, sparklers, flowers, statues of Goddesses, traditional oil lamps , traditional art and craft and various types of accessories for the Indian woman – earrings, bangles in bright colours and necklaces with intricate designs.
Bindis, would also be sold in various colours and designs- these are worn by Indian women on the forehead between the eyebrows – either in a sticker form, or as a powder. Married women would wear red. Henna would also be sold in the festival stalls. In some parts of the markets, there would be a skilled lady who would be doing beautiful henna designs on the hands of women who come to have them done. The prices for the items in the street markets could vary, and there is a general tendency to raise the prices a little given the festive occasion. One is encouraged to bargain and to appear confident. It is inevitable to bask in the richness of the Indian culture, just by having a short walk through the street markets or having a meal in the restaurants and cafes situated in Little India during this season.
What do the locals do?
At home, weeks before the Festival, Hindus would be busy with spring cleaning. They would clean or in some occasions redecorate their homes. Families and friends could be seen shopping for new clothes, shoes, bags and matching accessories to be worn on the day of the Festival.
On the day of the Festival, Hindus will wake up very early in the morning to take a traditional oil bath. It is believed this would help cleanse oneself of impurities. New traditional clothes in bright colours would be worn and often the colour black is avoided. Kolam – a drawing on the floor using coloured rice, is seen in the entrances of homes, and the altar is decorated with fresh flowers and garlands. Traditional oil lamps are also lit and placed in many parts of the home. Families would also typically make a visit to the temple, in time for the first pooja – or prayer, to pray for blessings for one another. Temples would also be likewise decorated. One could enter a Hindu temple in Singapore to explore the inside- however do note footwear has to be left outside the temples. Special prayers would be conducted for the day. Thereafter, families would either proceed home or visit relatives and enjoy a day of festive meals eaten on banana leaves. Sweet Indian delicacies would also be munched on and enjoyed. Children and adults also have fun lighting dozens of sparklers.
The festival is really interesting and a great thing to be part of if you have the chance. But just remember it gets very busy!