Updated: Sep 6
This post was written and shared for SBS Food
The Festival of Lights is one of hope, prosperity and peace. For someone who has spent 12 Diwalis away from India, it's also a festival of nostalgia and melancholy. If there's any time I feel a deep sense of longing for my mother country, it's during the month of Diwali because I am away from everyone and everything that made it special.
I remember the flurry of activity before Diwali, which started with the house being deep cleaned from top to bottom. We all pitched in and scrubbed every nook and corner of the house so that it looked sparkling clean. My parent's old, crumbling house managed to pull itself together after the excess amount of love we showered on it. There were lights, lanterns and rangolis, an art form where powdered colours or rice paste are used to make patterns on the floor on the day. There were also many sweet treats and food to share with all.
Diwali celebrations are spread over five days, with each day symbolising something meaningful. The first day is called Dhanteras, when Lord Dhanvantari, the god of medicine, gave the gift of Ayurveda, a system of traditional Indian medicine, to the world. It's considered auspicious to buy precious metals, like gold and silver, on this day as they are a sign of opulence and bring good luck.
The second day of Diwali is called Naraka Chaturdashi or Choti (small) Diwali because on this day, Lord Krishna killed the demon Narakasur and freed 16,000 women enslaved by him. Abhyanga snan or ritual bathing is done on this day by applying an aromatic paste made with herbs, special powders and sesame oil in the morning before one showers. It's believed that anyone who applies this paste can avoid going to Naraka or hell, and is protected from poverty and misfortune.
Day three is the main day when the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, is worshipped with special prayers and the lighting of lamps to invite her into our homes. Growing up, this was the most exciting day because not only did we get time off from school, but we also got new clothes, gorged on unlimited quantities of sweets and could burst firecrackers with no adults reprimanding us or telling us to stop.
Govardhan Puja is celebrated on the fourth day, where devotees make a feast called chappan bhog, which is made up of 56 dishes for Lord Krishna. The story goes that the poor farmers of Vrindavan used to offer food to Lord Indra, the god of rain, so he'd shower them with timely rainfall.
Lord Krishna, who was just a little boy, thought that this practice was not right, so he instructed everyone to stop the offering. Indra got so furious with this misdemeanour that he pounded the earth with torrential rain. To protect everyone from the downpour, Krishna lifted the mountain Govardhan on his little finger, which gave shelter to humans and animals alike and no life was lost. Finally, after seven days of relentless rain, Indra realised that this child was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and that he'd been taught a lesson in humility. He stopped the rain.
During these seven days, Lord Krishna did not eat a single grain of food. It was a common belief that he ate eight small meals in a day, so at the end of the seventh day, the people of Vrindavan made 56 dishes to express their gratitude and worshipped the Govardhan mountain for the protection it offered.
Bhai Dooj is celebrated on the last day of Diwali, where sisters pray for the long life of their brothers and exchange gifts. It's believed that on this day, the god of death, Yama, visits his sister Yamuna. Hindus believe that if a sister prays for her brother, he will live a happy and healthy life.
Contrary to popular belief, Diwali is not just a Hindu festival, where Hindus also celebrate the return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya with his wife Sita from a 14-year exile after defeating Ravana. Other religions also observe this day. For example, the Sikhs commemorate the release of their sixth Guru Hargobind's release from prison in 1619. For Jains, Diwali is the anniversary of Lord Mahavir's attainment of moksha, where he achieved freedom from the cycle of birth and death.
The lighting of lamps is standard throughout all cultures and religions, and, of course, like any festival, there can be no celebrations without food.
It doesn't matter where in the world you are, Diwali is special for all Indians. You can't help but decorate your home and make something sweet to share with those around you in the hope that one day you'll be back home to be hugged, loved and fed on Diwali.
A recipe for delicious mithai (sweets) is one that I'll be making this Diwali. It's a labour of love and a decadent treat that's sure to make everyone happy.
2 large beetroots
250 g fresh ricotta
1 litre full-fat milk
1 tbsp ghee (Clarified Butter)
3 tbsp sugar
1 tsp cardamom powder
A few almond flakes, pistachio dust and extra ghee for garnishing
1) Boil or roast the beetroot and then peel off the skin and grate.
2) Heat ghee in a pan and add the beetroot. Let it cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to ensure it doesn't stick to the pan. Turn off the heat.
3) Heat milk in a big pan on a low flame. Once it comes to a boil, add the ricotta and stir gently. Simmer this for 10 minutes.
4) Add the beetroot and let the mixture cook till the milk has completely evaporated.
5) Keep stirring to ensure that the mixture doesn't burn and stick to the pan.
6) Add the sugar and stir until the sugar has dissolved completely. Add the cardamom powder and mix well.
7) Grease a pan with a little bit of ghee and pour the beetroot mixture in. Generously sprinkle the almond flakes and pistachio dust on top. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
8) Cut into squares at the time of serving or break it into big chunks and serve it in dessert glasses sprinkled with pistachio dust and fairy floss.