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Festivals of Light - Hinduism

Lamp with five wicks, 1800-1900. Museum no. IS.859-1883

Lamp with five wicks, 1800-1900. Museum no. IS.859-1883. The aarti lamp represents fire one of the five elements from which everything is made according to the Hindu tradition.

Certain elements of Hinduism date back about 4000 years. Most gods are worshipped as aspects of the creator god Brahma. In the 'aarti' ceremony an aarti lamp with five wicks is circulated. The participants pass their hands over the lighted lamp and then over their forehead to make them feel closer to God.

The most popular and widely celebrated Hindu festival is Diwali, which comes from the word 'deepawali' meaning 'row of lamps'. It is celebrated by lighting 'diyas' (candles) and by setting off fireworks. Several traditions lie behind the celebration of Diwali. The most common story is that of Lord Rama's successful battle over the demon king Ravana, who had abducted Rama's wife Sita. With the help of his brother Lakshmana and the monkey god Hanuman, Rama defeated Ravana and returned triumphant to his kingdom of Ayodhya. In the celebrations that followed, in both Ayodhya and Mithila (the kingdom of which Sita was princess), oil lamps were lit to welcome them home. This idea of light (goodness) triumphing over dark (badness) has parallels in stories from other traditions.

Siva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, 1100-1200. Museum no. IM.71-1935

Siva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, India (Tamil Nadu), 1100-1200. Museum no. IM.71-1935. Lord Ampthill bequest.

One of the main Hindu gods is Siva, the creator and destroyer. He is part of the trinity with Visnu, the preserver, and Brahma, the creator. One of the forms of Siva is Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance.

This image (right) of the four-armed Siva dancing within a ring of flames and squashing a demon beneath one foot was made in the Chola period in south India. The circular aureole of flames symbolises the life of the universe and the flame (agni) in his hand is the element by which the universe will eventually be destroyed. The demon Apasmara symbolises ignorance. Siva conquering ignorance can therefore be seen as a way of gaining enlightenment.

Varanasi on the Ganges in north-east India, where the lamp was made, is one of the oldest and holiest cities in India. It is said to be the point at which the first 'jyotir linga', the fiery pillar of light by which Siva manifested his supremacy over the other gods, broke through the earth's crust and flared towards the heavens.


Dipa-Lakshmi (lamp showing Lakshmi as the Genius of Lamps). Museum no. IPN.2482

Dipa-Lakshmi (lamp showing Lakshmi as the Genius of Lamps), India, date unknown. Museum no. IPN.2482.

Diwali is also celebrated as a harvest festival and the beginning of the financial year. In the hope of a prosperous new year Hindus invite the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, into their homes. They light 'diyas' and make 'rangoli', which are temporary floor pictures created from pigments, sand or pulses. They also make offerings to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god. As clearer of obstacles, he will ensure that their prayers reach Lakshmi.

Dipa Lakshmi is the name given to this kind of lamp (right) in which the goddess Lakshm, in her capacity as 'Genius of the Lamps', holds a tray for one wick.

The Jains and the Sikhs also celebrate Diwali. For the Jains it is a commemoration of the moksha (liberation / emancipation) of the 24th Jina, Mahavira in 527 BC . Mahavira had been born of a royal family but left it to lead the life of an ascetic. According to tradition, the royals who came to attend his last rites said

'Now that the light of the enlightenment has disapeared, let us light the lamps instead in his memory'.
This was on the day that Hindus celebrate Deepavali/Diwali.

The Sikhs have always celebrated Diwali. However, its significance increased historically when on this day  in October 1619 the Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind Ji, was freed from imprisonment along with 52 Hindu kings whom he had arranged to be released as well.  This day is refered to by Sikhs as Bandi Chhork Divas (the day of freedom).

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