10 Basic Deepavali Facts Every Singaporean Must Know

Even though we Singaporeans live in a multicultural society, our knowledge of each other’s cultural traditions can sometimes be pretty shallow. But it’s never too late to learn and appreciate culture, so here’s 10 basic facts you need to know about the upcoming Deepavali festival so that you don’t malu (embarrass) yourself in front of your friends!

1. Deepavali is NOT the Hindu New Year

Okay, admit it, far too many of us Singaporeans who aren’t Indian have had this misconception. Deepavali is a celebration of good triumphing over evil, and typically falls in November. The Hindu New Year, in contrast, is usually celebrated in March or April.

So, well-meaning as you may be, wishing your friends a Happy New Year during Deepavali isn’t the most appropriate. Instead, simply wishing your friends “Happy Deepavali!” on the day itself and sending well wishes to them and their families will definitely bring out a smile.

2. Deepavali has Epic Origins, literally

Deepavali’s origins are steeped in traditional mythology. Although there are different legends associated with its origins and significance, all of them carry a common theme where good triumphs over evil, and light over darkness.

Northern Indians associate Deepavali with the Indian epic, Ramayana. It is the celebration marking Lord Rama of Ayuthya’s return to claim his rightful throne, after being stripped of it and exiled for 14 years. It is said that people welcomed Lord Rama’s triumphant return with rows of clay lamps called diya, which became a yearly Deepavali tradition.

For Southern Indians, Deepavali is linked to Lord Krishna, who responded to the prayers of people under the oppressive rule of a cruel demon king, Narakasura. Lord Krishna fought Narakasura in battle and slayed him, thus dispelling the darkness of the demon king’s rule with light. To this day, the lights of Deepavali serve as a reminder that darkness can only be removed with light.

Deepavali is also associated with the goddess of wealth and beauty, Lakshmi, who brings good fortune to the clean and well-lit homes she visits. Houses are decorated with lights to encourage her to visit. All these legends make it clear why Deepavali is also known as the Festival of Lights.

3. Deepavali is celebrated differently by each Indian ethnic group

Although the Festival of Lights is one of the biggest cultural festivals and celebrated by all of India, each ethnic group in India actually has its own way of commemorating the festival! It is a Hindu festival, but also celebrated by Indians of other religions like the Jains and the Sikhs, the latter in memory of Guru Hargobind, the sixth Sikh guru, who was released from imprisonment by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir on this day.

With the vast diversity of cultures and languages it is no surprise that there are actually many different Deepavali traditions. Celebrations in India can last up to five days, while Deepavali here in Singapore is a gazetted national holiday and celebrated over one day.

4. One word: COLOURS!

Indian celebrations are known for their amazing bursts of colour, and Deepavali is no different. From household decorations to festive outfits, you’ll see bright colours and tastefully matched hues everywhere. And why not, because this is after all a celebration of light over darkness! Traditionally, the colour black is associated with death and considered inauspicious, and most Hindus tend to avoid this colour during Deepavali.

5. Festive home decor: Rangoli & Diyas

This is the time where the famous Rangoli artwork is out on full display. You’ve definitely seen these because the beautiful and intricate patterns that adorn the entryways and floors are too eye-catching to miss. Traditionally created from coloured rice powder or rice grains, modern-day Rangoli uses flowers and even paper quilling to form lovely designs that often incorporate geometric patterns or flora and fauna. Traditional Rangoli was also considered an act of charity as it provided food for birds and other animals. If you’re up for a DIY Rangoli experience, check out our upcoming masterclass or Rangoli feature!

Besides the colourful Rangoli, households will also place lighted diyas, or clay lamps, around the doorway to welcome auspicious energy into the home. At night, diyas are lit and displayed on window ledges too. Traditional diyas use oil and wicks, but now electric diyas that come in a multitude of colours, and even fairy lights are widely used to brighten the home.

6. Morning Rituals – Oil Baths & Prayers

When Deepavali itself rolls around, traditionally many Hindus will wake up very early to take an oil bath. In this ritual, the oldest member of the family places three drops of oil on the foreheads of the rest of the family members before they take their baths. It is believed that taking an oil bath on Deepavali has equal merit to a bath in the sacred Ganges river in India.

Prayer rituals, or pooja, are another important morning ritual. Thanksgiving prayers are offered before the family shrine, and younger family members receive blessings from their elders. Hindu families will then visit temples to offer prayers before visiting friends and relatives. Since Deepavali is a religious festival, some Hindus may also choose to abstain from meat.

7. New Clothes Maketh the New Man (and Woman!)

What’s a cultural festival without some ethnic wear! India’s varied cultural landscape has given rise to a dazzling array of ethnic styles, all of which are on full display during Deepavali. On this day, wearing new clothes represents a new start and the hope of becoming a better person.

Traditional ethnic wear for men typically consists of a dhoti (a cloth knotted around the waist that covers the legs, resembling a long skirt) and angavastram (a long cloth draped over the shoulder), while the women don a saree (long fabric draped around the body) and choli (blouse). However, India’s top fashion designers and Bollywood A-listers are always finding new and innovative ways to embrace fusion styles, making it trendy and acceptable to flaunt modern ethnic fashion – not that we’re complaining!

Not every style is suitable for sunny Singapore, but we’ve curated a few here to dress your best this Deepavali. With merchants touting everything from embroidery to sequins and mirrorwork, you’ll be spoilt for choice. So get pick an outfit, get hands-on with Henna, and bravely pile on the bling because the Festival of Lights is THE time to shine.

8. Savoury Snacks and Sweet Treats

A highlight of Deepavali visiting is definitely the traditional sweets and savoury snacks, with many households making their own versions. Out of the many snacks, one stands out — the crunchy Murukku. There’s even an old saying, “If there’s no Murukku, there’s no Deepavali”! For many local Indian families, making Murukku is a generations-old tradition. Although it’s time-consuming as a single batch of homemade Murukku can take up to an hour to make, families today still involve their children in making this beloved snack as a way of spending quality time and passing on their cultural heritage.

If you’ve been invited to celebrate Deepavali with an Indian family and want to bring gift, many Indian restaurants offer elegantly packed gift boxes of mithai, the festive sweets. Otherwise, chocolates or fruits are also appropriate. Expect to be blown away by a buffet of snacks made by your hosts, including sweets like gulab jamun and karanji, and sweetmeats like halwa, burfi, laddu and semia.

9. Of Families and Feasts

Like many cultural festivals, Deepavali is a time of gathering with friends and family, and of course, a festive family feast! Although sweets are a bigger highlight than special food dishes, different families will have their own favourites that again might differ by region. South Indian families might enjoy sakkarai pongal, a sweet rice-mush intensely flavoured with cardamom and nutty cashews, while Bengali families might indulge in rasgulla, a milky ball of maida or semolina flour, filled with dried and candied fruit. Still, it’s really the opportunity to tuck in to a large spread of traditional Indian cuisine whilst spending quality time together that makes Deepavali a time of joy.

10. Little India is THE place to be

The area surrounding Serangoon Road is known as Little India, and it really comes alive during Deepavali. With many of Singapore’s early Indian migrants plying their trades there, shops in the Serangoon, Selegie and Rochor areas have been decorating and lighting up their shopfronts in the days before Deepavali sine the early 1900s.

Still an important area for Singapore’s local and migrant Indian communities today, Little India is the place to go to shop for textiles, clothes, and ingredients for preparing the festive sweets and sweetmeats for Deepavali. Shoppers can also pick up flowers, home decorations, and even gold jewellery. The beloved official street light up along Serangoon Road was introduced in 1985, adding to the festive atmosphere and spreading the joy of the occasion in a visible way to Singapore’s other communities.

Normally, the light-up is accompanied by a buffet of other festive activites including a countdown concert, heritage and craft exhibition, and a festival village bazaar. While many of these on-site activities have gone online this year due to COVID-19, the street light up and festive buzz around the shops will carry on, and are a great way to experience the spirit and buzz of Deepavali. Many shops will be running festive sales and promos, so if you’re planning to head down, why not savour the food and discover the ever-changing street art scene while you’re at it?

For a safe and enjoyable experience, do remember to observe the appropriate social distancing and safety measures, of course!