How Diwali Lit up the World: Celebrating Hinduism Across the Globe

By: Virgin Atlantic

November 14, 2014

Hindu festivals in the UK have been on the rise in recent years – so many are celebrated in India, as well as the rest of the world, there are too many to list here! Diwali was recently celebrated across the globe, so we thought it perfect timing to not only look back at the Festival of Lights, but to explore the meanings behind other Hindu festivals. Here are just a few to look out for in the coming year, whether you’re staying in the UK or planning a trip to India.

Bhairava Ashtami – November 2014

This is the commemoration of the birthday of Bhairava, a formidable manifestation of the god, Shiva. Shiva became feared during a heated debate about who should be worshipped more highly between him and the other gods. People stay up to pray, worship and tell stories about Shiva, and at midnight, an aarti is performed. Devotees then take a bath in the morning, before offering sweets, curds, other foods and flowers to dogs, as this was the “˜animal vehicle’ of Bhairava.

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Image by Jean-Pierre DalberaScuplture of Bhairava at the Bhairabnath Temple

Hanuman Jayanthi – April 2015

This popular festival can be celebrated individually, or in the temple. Hanuman, otherwise known as the Monkey God, was devoted to worshipping Lord Rama. He was humble, loyal and dedicated, which is why he became worshipped by others. Today, Hanuman symbolises the strength of the human race. This festival is designed to celebrate our harmonious co-existence with nature and animals. In India, some people dress up in masks and tails to imitate Hanuman, and colourful processions make their way through the streets. In the UK, devotees gather to sing the Hanuman Chalisa (sacred text), often throughout the entire day. The celebrations close with a huge vegetarian feast.

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Image by Premnath Thirumalaisamy – Hanuman at the Swing Pavilion, Veerabhadra Temple, Lepakshi

Janmashtami – September 2015

This festival takes place during August-September, known as the month of Shravana. It celebrates the birth of Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu. Hindus celebrate this festival by staying up until midnight and fasting. It is believed that Krishna was born at midnight, and that miracles started to happen after his birth. Images of Lord Krishna as an infant are placed in cots in homes and temples, with these images sometimes being bathed in milk, honey and ghee (purified butter).

Holi – The Festival of Colours

This visually bewitching festival, with its release of coloured powders into the air, signifies the official ushering in of spring. Sometimes coined the Festival of Love, there is more than one legend behind its origin, but culturally it’s seen as an opportunity to forgive and forget. People often settle or waive debts over this time, and rid themselves of past errors, sins and discrepancies.

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Image by Steven Gerner – Holi Festival of Colours in Spanish Fork, UT

The lighting of a bonfire symbolises the victory of good over evil, and marks the beginning of the festivities. The bonfire embodies a symbolic legend of the demon king Hiranyakashipu and his sister Holika, which is where the term “˜Holi’ comes from. People often place coconuts in the bonfire to illustrate the shedding of their sins.

Holi in the UK

During the Holi celebrations in India, everyone is seen as equal. This is what has inspired countries across the globe to take part and host festivities of their own. After the idea was introduced in Europe by the Holi Concept GmbH (founders and initiators of the first Holi Festival Of Colours in Europe), the first European Holi festival took place in Berlin back in 2012.

People of all faiths turn out every year for the Holi celebrations at Spinney Hill Park in Leicester. The event has been organised here since 1985 by Shree Hindu Temple. In spring 2014, more than 5,000 people showed up – making it the biggest Festival of Colours in Leicester to date. Celebrations are also held throughout London, often occurring in June. Last year, the Holi Festival in London took place in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and was a roaring success – despite the rain!

Holi in India

If you’re looking for Holi celebrations in India, there are plenty of great destinations to visit. You could start your trip in the temple towns of Mathura and Vrindavan, which are just four hours from Delhi. Celebrations kick off early here – beginning 40 days before the main Holi day (in 2015, this day will be March 6th). Lord Krishna was born in Mathura and grew up in Vrindavan, so many festivities take place here over this time.

In Delhi, the Holi celebrations are best described as beautifully wild. People dance, play music, feast on fantastic food and cloak each other in colour to the point of being unrecognisable. Things can often get quite rowdy, so visiting during this time is not for the fainthearted. The festival has also been modernised for both expats and locals in the form of the Holi Cow Festival. Revellers should expect great street food, live music from DJs and bands and of course – plenty of colour.

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Image by Hermes Marana, Holi Cow festival in Delhi

Diwali – The Festival of Lights

Leicester was the first city in the UK to carry out the exciting Diwali celebrations. The celebrations were a huge success, and since then, the Mayor of London in partnership with the Diwali in London Committee (DiL) has taken the festival to such great heights, causing other cities in the UK to follow suit. This festival – along with many others – is now widely recognised across the country. DiL comprises 14 different organisations who work together to ensure that the many communities of London have a fantastic celebration. Diwali took place several weeks ago, both internationally and in the UK, and the festival lit up each location as spectacularly as ever.

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Image by Harpreet Singh

Diwali is celebrated for a variety of reasons in different cultures, with the main themes being a glorious recognition of the victory of light over darkness, good over evil and truth over falsehood. The name comes from the Sanskrit word, Deepavali, meaning “˜row of lamps’. The festival marks Lord Rama’s homecoming (along with his wife and brother) from a 14 year exile, after gaining victory over the dark forces. It’s said that upon hearing of their homecoming, Rama’s village lit a row of lights so that they could be guided home.

Diwali is celebrated in autumn in Hindu, Sikh and Jain faiths, so celebrations only recently brought the globe to life. The nature of this ancient five-day festival encapsulates the very essence of community spirit, no matter where it is celebrated or who it is celebrated by. In the months of October and November 2014; friends, family and neighbours from a variety of backgrounds joined together, and they will do the same for years to come.

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Image by David Hone

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Image by David Hone

Nil Kumar is a committee member of DiL. As the lights fade after this year’s festivities, we spoke to him about the significance of Diwali celebrations in the UK, and what’s next on the horizon for the committee for next year and beyond.

What does the festival means to you on a personal level?

It is the most wonderful time where the community comes together and celebrates in different ways. It is a time to share values of culture, start new beginnings, leave darkness behind and bring light – diwas (“˜celebrate’).

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Image by David Hone – Main stage at the 2014 Diwali Festival in London

Which are your personal favourite places to visit during the festival in the UK?

The Diwali celebrations in the UK are some of the best”¦

      • Leicester does a street festival with fireworks and it’s the largest street festival in Europe. It’s run by the Leicester City Council and the Leicester Hindu Festival Council now, attracting a 60,000 plus crowd.
      • The Baps Shri Swaminarayan temple in Neasden celebrates with fireworks on actual Diwali day each year and has the largest Annakut (new year’s day), with a crowd of 50,000 plus.
      • The Trafalgar Square Diwali. The Mayor of London, in partnership with DiL, celebrates the Diwali festival a few days before Diwali, with the largest stage show and a crowd of 35,000 plus.
      • The ISKCON Temple in Watford celebrates with fireworks too, with several thousand guests.
      • Dublin Diwali has become a regular event now too.
      • Birmingham Diwali, organised by the Hindu Council of Birmingham, is the smallest of this large festival, enjoyed by around 8000 people. It’s generally a week or two after Diwali. (Diwali 2014 celebrations in Birmingham will be held at The New Bingley Hall on Sunday 16th November).
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Image by David Hone – Part of the DiL Committee

How did you start to organise the first Diwali festival in Leicester back in 1983?

The first mega Diwali outside India was in Leicester in 1983, with Belgrave Road being closed for the first time for Diwali. Together with Leicester City Council and contributions from business owners in the vicinity, the fund was raised. There was good support from Hindu communities too, together with the Gujrat Hindu association – a large umbrella organisation at the time. Since this event, other larger Diwali events have now built up and the UK can be proud to celebrate Diwali – the celebrations may be the best in world.

How did you manage to involve the local communities there and beyond?

The road on which the lights are mounted and celebrations take place in Leicester is Belgrave/Melton Road, and most of the shops are Asian-owned so it was logical to get them involved. The shops were requested to open till late on road closure night and complete rangolis (a type of Indian folk art) and decorate their shop windows too. The festival increased the turnover and shops were only willing to add colour to the festival. Now, this is called the golden mile!

What’s next for DiL and the event?

DiL is mainly involved with the Mayor of London’s Trafalgar Square event and planning for 2015 has already started. I am lucky to be the anchor of the event on behalf of DiL, which is made up of very diverse organisations united in bringing Diwali in Trafalgar Square into a partnership with the Mayor of London – this year was the thirteenth year of this festival.

Diwali in Delhi

Delhi is well-known for having a clear division between old and new. A city already striking to look at becomes illuminated by a cloud of astonishing sights, sounds and spectacles. The run-up to Diwali is also palpable here. Locals begin to clean, shop and redecorate in order to prepare for the festivities. On Diwali day itself, shops stay open in the morning – if good sales are made, it’s believed there will be a prosperous year ahead. Temporary stages are also set up on lots of street corners for the Ramlila – a dramatic re-enactment of the life of Rama. It lasts for several evenings, with a sensational finale of good over evil.

Several temples and other locations are well worth a visit in Delhi, but we highly recommend the following:

The Akshardham Complex

To witness the capital’s modern-day take on pilgrimage architecture, visit the Akshardham – a beautiful Hindu temple complex on the banks of the Yamuna River in east Delhi. Stunning lights illuminate the buildings, landscaped gardens and water features. There’s also a fantastic 12-minute boat ride that will carry you through India’s 10,000 year history.

The Lotus Temple

Located in Kalkaji in New Delhi, this flower-like building’s official title is the Bahá’í House of Worship, and it is one of the most visited buildings in the world. You can learn about the temple’s history on a day-long private tour, and people of all religions are welcome to worship, as the Bahá’í faith believes in universal peace and a oneness of mankind. For a truly welcoming environment, this is an absolute must-see during Diwali.

Birla Mandir

Situated on the Mandir Marg (Temple Road) in Delhi, this major Hindu temple – also known as Laxmi Narayan Temple – attracts thousands of devotees during Diwali (though people of all faiths are welcome). Every inch of the three-storied structure is magnificently studded with lights, and once inside, you’ll be able to see shrines for various Hindu gods and goddesses. If you choose to visit after the festivities, you may find this temple to be somewhat calmer than others in the city.

Gali Paranthe Wali

You’ll need to stop for some food in-between sight-seeing, and when in Delhi, you have to try some parantha, a delicious type of fried flatbread. Head to Gali Paranthe Wali, a narrow street in the Chandi Chowk area of Deli – now a famous culinary destination. The food is here is vegetarian and extremely traditional. With your parantha, expect various types of chutney, paneer and potato curry, sweet pumpkin and vegetable pickle. For an authentic Indian experience, wash it all down with a glass of sweet lassi – a yoghurt-based drink that’s also a speciality of this area.

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Image by Philipp Eyer – Pilgrims gather for Kumbh Mela along the Ganga River

Some Hindu festivals are more well-known in this country than others, but something that most of them have in common is the joining of people from all backgrounds in a positive celebration of life. If you’d like to see some of them in action in India, catch an affordable flight to Delhi with Virgin Atlantic.

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