Diwali, the festival of lights, shines through Zoom

Image credit: Neasden Temple

By Minreet Kaur

The Indian festival of Diwali, the five-day festival of lights, is celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. The festival coincides with the new moon and this year starts on Saturday 14 November.

Diwali is marked in all faiths by fireworks and lights, bright colours, social gatherings, parties, dancing, giving gifts, fine attire and feasts with sweets. And though this year the coronavirus pandemic is transforming the practices of millions of people from these faiths who live in the UK, the virus is not going to spoil their fun.

As a mark of acknowledgment and respect, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer and himself a Hindu, lit candles on the steps of 11 Downing Street, while urging people to follow Covid-19 health restrictions.

Celebrations have gone online. In Leicester, a one-hour online programme is being organised, combining the traditional religious ceremony, the lighting of the diva lamp, with entertainment featuring local artists and performers, dance, sitar music, a contemporary Bollywood dance routine and film of previous years’ fireworks displays.  

In Manchester there is a 10-day Digital Diwali, a live videostream and radio broadcast programme of Indian classical and contemporary music, dance, storytelling and interactive workshops. It includes more than 30 performances from more than 50 musicians, dancers and artists.

Diwali London is already under way with daily celebrations online including music and dance. Neasden Temple is arranging online celebrations every day until the Hindu new year, which begins on 16 November.

Diwali is fundamentally a Hindu festival celebrating the time when the Hindu god Lord Rama and his wife Sita returned to their home in northern India after 13 years in exile and after the defeat of the demon king Ravanna.  

Hindus see Diwali as their new year and a time to renew their faith. Houses are cleaned, finances are organised, religious vows are renewed. The religious meaning of Diwali is the defeat of good over evil, light over darkness — hence the  festival of light.

However for Sikhs, although Diwali is celebrated at the same time, their celebration is  called Bandi Chhor Divas, or day of liberation, commemorating the release from prison of the sixth Guru of the Sikhs, Sri Guru Hargobind Ji, with 52 Hindu kings, incarcerated for their revolt against the Mughal Emperor Jahangir.

The religious meaning in Bandi Chhor, is freedom, justice and liberation from bondage. The festival reminds followers that the true guru is the liberator of people in bondage and the faithful should light the flame of divine wisdom within themselves. It is a time for renewal of faith, cleanliness, good overcoming evil, and a time for new year resolutions.

For Jains, the festival marks the anniversary of the release of the soul of Mahavira, an ascetic who shaped the faith. The celebrations, with similar rituals of light, keeps his memory alive and also marks the start of the new year.

At Neasden Hindu temple, the largest outside India, people have expressed sorrow at the way their customs have had to change this year. Jaydev Vyas said  it has been a very difficult time for many who have lost loved ones to Covid-19. “Diwali is the festival of lights. We all need light. This year is going to be virtual so we won’t be able to get together and have a party or exchange sweets. Nothing like that is going to happen. Even places of worship like temples are closed. We will miss the family get-togethers.”

Tarun Patel, a volunteer at Neasden, said: “Normally, thousands of people would come to the temple to celebrate Diwali. This year, the temple will go into thousands of people’s homes delivering a spiritual message and giving hope, faith and confidence in people through these difficult times and with the hope that better times will return”.

Meanwhile the UK’s half-million Sikhs are also adapting to change. Sandeep Singh Daheley said: “This year we have had many celebrations cancelled. As well as Bandi Chhor, we have Guru Nanak Dev Ji Gurpurab at the end of the month and we would normally have a nagar kirtan, where we process through streets while singing hymns, and gurdwaras would be heaving.

“So we have set up an online platform where Sikhs across the world can tune in, pray together, and just be together virtually. This offers the community a way to keep them united through these uncertain times.”

Spirits are not crushed. Kiran Bali, the general secretary of the Hindu Society of Kirklees and Calderdale, in West Yorkshire, said: “Community members will celebrate Diwali creatively this year, in their homes, in a jubilant way by lighting up all communities in prayer through Zoom.”