The Idiot's Guide to Diwali

It’s Diwali today & because I’m having a trying day, I thought I’d just repost this old one and get on with it but it wasn’t to be. The darn thing had disappeared, not to be found anywhere causing me to look for the nearest mug to make coffee. I almost lopped my finger off (don’t ask) & I did burn my mouth with the coffee because I forgot to add milk. Then I had a Eureka moment!  My youngest taught me to back up and I had obeyed! For the love of my child, I’d listened and I could have kissed him.

I found it. So, to the gremlin who hid or nicked it, you know what you can do.  Here, then, is an article I wrote a year ago, reworked. For some reason I never got round to the Hindu festival of light because it required substantial reading but I have undertaken the marathon task and with a little help from my friends, here its. Thanks Prakash – as you can see, I’ve shortened because I had to for my purpose. Come to think of it, Diwali, Hannukah and Christmas are all about light but with different approaches and even though Al Adha is a festival of Sacrifice, I can see a spiritual light, especially in the last day of the festival because since all Muslims are (if you think about it) guided by the light of their faith.


  • It’s a public holiday in Fiji, Guyana, India, Mauritius, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago so it’s a really good idea to bear that in mind when you’re planning a business trip since you won’t be getting any work done.
  • Some Indian businesses begin their financial year on the first day of Diwali to bring them luck but it doesn’t mean they’ll be working on that day.
  • On Diwali everyone wears new clothes and everyone eats together so if you’re thinking about being in an area where Diwali is celebrated, bear in mind that you would need to take something decent to wear; if you don’t it would be disrespectful and you would feel like a klutz.
  • It’s celebrated in different ways in different parts of India so find out what the customs are before you go or at the very least, drop me a line


Diwali celebrates a number of things and to help you understand, I’m going to list them point by point:

  • It signifies the victory of good over evil, the awareness of an inner light and is celebrated towards the end of autumn, starting one evening. In the true spirit of this festival of light, the windows of all the homes are illuminated by lamps (diyas) and candles and from a distance, it looks incredible.
  • The most important theme is the awareness of inner light which will banish darkness, the transcendence of reality and the realization that that all things are one and this will lead to Ananda (inner joy or peace).
  • In India Diwali is seen as a renewal of life and this is why all the old lamps are thrown out and new lamps are bought for this period.
  • The lamps are believed to help souls of the departed find their way to heaven.
  • In some parts of the world, shopkeepers will close their books for the year and then put their ledgers in front of an image of Lakshmi to pray for improved profits in the year to come.
  • Becasue Lakshmi only visits well lit homes, everyone decorates the homes with flowers and paper chains and while they’re at they hang garlands of flowers and more lights in the streets.
  • Diwali cards are available in most parts of the world, so buy your Hindu friends a card to show your respect; if you don’t find any, make it yourself.
  • A Rangoli design is created on doorsteps to welcome everybody so don’t get a fright & try not to spoil it when you go visiting; in the days of yore, rice flour was thrown as an offering to the small creatures like insects and birds but nowadays paint, sand and chalk are used to make the design
  • Traditionally Hindus visit the temple before starting to eat; festivities in the temple are joyful with music, singing and dancing is part of the proceedings.


  • The main story as found in the Ramayana (a Hindu epic) tells how Rama, prince of Ayodhya, was ordered by his dad, King Dasharatha, to leave his country and go and live in the forests for fourteen years; he, obediently, left with his wife Sita and his faithful brother Lakshmana but on the way disaster struck and the demon king of Lanka abducted Sita and imprisoned her on his island kingdom. Rama battled for Ravana for fourteen years, eventually defeating him and then rescued Sita; he returned to Ayodhya where everyone was overjoyed to see him again and to celebrate his homecoming they decorated the whole city and lit it up with candles – this, they say, is how the tradition of Diwali began.
  • There’s another story (as there always is) called the Mahabharata which tells how five royal brothers, the Pandavas were trounced by their brothers, the Kauravas whilst playing dice. The forfeit was that they had to sped 13 years in exile, after which they were free to return to Hastinapura; upon their return, the people of the town illuminated the whole state by lighting earthenware lamps and this is why Diwali is celebrated to this day.
  • A third one tells how Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) rose up from the oceans. Hindu scriptures hold that in the days of yore, gods and demons were mortals who had to die, like we all all have to; it seems they didn’t like the idea to so they churned the ocean to find Amrita (the nectar of immortality) and, instead, many divine creatures rose up from the oceans. Lakshmi was one of the most important (daughter of the king of ocean) and on that same night, Vishnu married her at which time brilliant lamps were lit to mark the holy procession. Every year the event is commemorated and that is why Diwali is celebrated.


There are two victories (good over evil) being celebrated:

  • The return of Lord Rama to his kingdom ( Ayodhya) after he trounced Ravana (the demon king) who was, at the time, ruling Lanka.
  • The slaying of the demon king Narakasura by Lord Krishna.


  1. The Jains: celebrate the occasion when Lord Mahavira (founder of Jainism) achieved moksha in 527 BC. They celebrate Diwali during the month of Kartik for three days. During this period, among the Shvetambaras, devoted Jains observe fasting and chant
  2. The Sikhs: commemorates the return of the 6th Guru, Har Gobind Ji to Amritsar after he freed 52 Hindu kings that had been imprisoned in Fort Gwalior by Emperor Jahangir in 1619; they often refer to the day as Bandi Chhorh Divas (the day the detainees were released). It was celebrated by lighting up the golden Temple as it still is during this celebration.


Diwali is celebrated for 5 days according to the lunar Hindu Calendar & there are 6 stories associated with it and each day is a celebration of one of the stories.

  1. Dhanteras: on this day, Lord Dhanwantari came out of the ocean with Ayurvedic for mankind. This day marks the beginning of Diwali.
  2. Choti Diwali: on this day Lord Krishna destroyed the demon Narakasur and made the world free from fear.
  3. Lakshmi Puja on Diwali: this is the day when Hindus pray to Lakshmi for wealth and prosperity, the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness.
  4. Padwa & Govardhan Puja: on this day, Govardhan Pooja is performed in accordance with Krisha’s instructions.
  5. Bhratri Dooj: the day is dedicated to sisters and it’s common to see brothers will visiting their sisters so that they may be liberated from their sin. I’m not quite sure what happens if a woman has no brothers. It’s the last day of Diwali. Thus the Nirvana occurred 605 years and 5 months before the Saka era.

The Events:

  • The Return of Sri Ram after his banishment and to celebrate this 20 rows of candles were lit.
  • The slaying of Narakasura  – celebrated the day before Diwali it commemorates the slaying of the evil demon (there are many versions of this story).
  • Govardhan Puja is celebrated the day after Diwali and it celebrates the victory of Krishna over Indra, the god of thunder and rain.

As with all celebrations, food plays an enormous role and since this is, after all, a Hindu festival, I’ve listed a few vegetarian recipes for you to try. I’ve made them all and they’re all delicious.


This is Madhur Jaffrey recipe that I’ve adapted ever so slightly.


For the garam masala

  • 1 tbsp cardamom seeds (if you can’t buy the seeds then buy cardamom pods and shell them yourself)
  • 1 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp black cumin seeds (you can use regular cumin seeds if black aren’t available)
  • 1 tsp whole cloves
  • 1/3 of a whole nutmeg (you can break a whole nutmeg by putting it on a cloth and bashing it with a meat mallet or rolling pin)
  • a medium stick of cinnamon, about 5cm-8cm/2in-3in, broken up into 3-4 pieces

For the pullao

  • basmati rice, measured to the 450ml level in a measuring jug
  • thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive or groundnut oil
  • 1 tsp brown mustard seeds
  • 1 hot green chilli, finely chopped
  • 1 lemon, finely grated zest only
  • 100 g potatoes, peeled and cut into 5mm dice
  • ¼ carrot, peeled and cut into 5mm dice
  • 40g green beans, cut into 5mm segments
  • ½ tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1¼ tsp salt
  • 570ml  water


  • For the garam masala, put all the garam masala spices in a clean coffee grinder or other spice grinder and grind as finely as possible. Store in a tightly lidded jar, away from heat and sunlight. This makes about three tablespoons.
  • For the pullao, wash the rice in several changes of water then drain. Put the rice in a bowl, cover with water and leave to soak for 30 minutes, then drain again.
  • Peel and finely grate the ginger.
  • Heat the oil in a heavy-based pan (with a tight-fitting lid) set over a medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the mustard seeds.
  • As soon as they begin to pop – a matter of seconds – add the chilli, potato, carrot and green beans and stir.
  • Add the turmeric and garam masala and stir for one minute.
  • Add the ginger and saute, stirring, for another minute.
  • Drain the rice and add it to the pan.
  • Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir the rice very gently to mix it into the other ingredients and coat it with the oil and spices. Cook this way for two minutes.
  • Add the 570ml water and the salt and bring to the boil, then cover the pan with a very tight-fitting lid (if you don’t have a very tight-fitting lid then cover the pan with foil then a lid) then turn the heat to very low and cook for 25 minutes until it’s just cooked; if it’s ready you can leave it with the lid on and the heat turned off for up to half an hour before serving.


I found this in a book by Raghaven Iyer and like all his recipes, it’s simply delicious. This type of food is often made as an offering to the goddess of learning and wrapped in banana leaves to be delivered by women & children after they’ve visited their various temples. This recipe is quite hot and is my interpretation of a Raghaven Iyer recipe.


  • 625 ml cooked chickpeas (you can use tinned here)
  • 3 tbsp very light extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp yellow split peas (obviously picked over to remove any stones)
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 4 dried Thai chillies (you can use cayenne if you can’t find the Thai) with the stems removed
  • 1 tsp tamarind paste
  • 1 tsp yellow mustard seeds
  • 2 tsp salt (you can check & correct your seasoning before serving)
  • ¼ ground turmeric
  • ¼ cardamom seeds, ground (remove the seeds from the green cardamom pods & grind them into a powder)
  • 12 large curry leaves (fresh ones)
  • 250 ml fresh coconut, grated (if you don’t have, use the dried coconut & soak it in boiling water for 30 minutes, drain and it’s ready to use)
  • 2 tbsp fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped


  • Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat before adding the split peas, the coriander seeds & the chillies and stir fry (stirring constantly) until the split peas & the coriander seeds are a reddish brown and the chillies have blackened slightly (around 2 minutes).
  • Remove the pan from the heat and preferably using a slotted spoon, skim off the spices and transfer them to a plate to cool; allow them to rest for around 5 minutes and as soon as they are cool enough to touch, put them in your spice grinder and grind coarsely (like coarse ground pepper).
  • Pour about 450 ml water into a bowl and dissolve the tamarind paste in it.
  • Reheat the oil in the saucepan over medium high heat and now add the mustard seeds and fry until the seeds have stopped popping (please cover the pan otherwise you’ll literally have seed in your face); it takes about 30 seconds or thereabouts.
  • Stir in the chickpeas, the salt, the cardamom and the curry leaves and stir to coat the chickpeas evenly with spices; now pour in the tamarind water and bring to a boil before lowering the heat down to medium and cook, uncovered & stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.
  • Stir in the ground spices, the coconut and the chopped coriander leaves and serve.



  • 625ml cooked chick peas (you can use tins if you must)
  • 1 large tomato, cored & coarsely chopped
  • 1 small red onion, coarsely chopped
  • 8 slices of fresh ginger (cut lengthwise & about 4 – 5 cm long, 2 cm wide & 1 cm thick), 4 julienned into matchsticks and 4 coarsely chopped
  • 8 good sized cloves garlic, 4 coarsely chopped & 5 finely chopped
  • 2 green Thai chillies – always remove the stalks
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 cinnamon stick (about 6 cm long) broken into pieces and pounded in a pestle & mortar or ground in your spice grinder
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp Kashmiri chillies (if you don’t have those use ½ tsp cayenne pepper mixed with 1 ½ tsp paprika
  • ½ ground turmeric
  • 125 fresh coriander leaves & stems, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp Punjabi garam masala*
  • 1 large lime, all the fresh juice


  • Pour 125 ml water into a blender jar with the tomato, the onion, the coarsely chopped ginger, the coarsely chopped garlic, the chillies, the coriander seeds, the cumin seeds and the cinnamon; puree (and make sure that you scrape the inside of the jar every now and again) until you have a purplish speckled smooth sauce.
  • Heat the oil over medium heat and add the julienned ginger & finely chopped garlic until it sizzles and becomes very light brown (1 – 2 minutes).
  • Now pour in the speckled sauce (take care, it will begin to boil in seconds) and then stir in the ground chillies, the turmeric and half of the coriander leaves; cover the pan partially and simmer, stirring occasionally until an oily sheen starts to appear around the edges and on the surface (5 – 10 minutes).
  • Add the chickpeas and 250 ml water and stir once or twice while bringing the curry to the boil.
  • Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer, completely covered (stirring occasionally) untilt he sauce has thickened slightly and the chickpeas have become more tender & have absorbed all the rich flavours – it usually takes about half an hour.
  • Stir in the Punjabi masala, the lime juice and the rest of the cilantro and serve.



  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tsp whole cloves
  • ½ tsp black peppercorns
  • ½ tsp cardamom seeds (taken from the black cardamom pods)
  • 3 cinnamon sticks (each 6 centimetres long), broken into smaller pods
  • 3 fresh or dried bay leaves


  • Preheat a small skillet over medium high heat & add all the spices & the bay leaves and toast, shaking the skillet every few seconds until the coriander & cumin turns reddish brown & the cinnamon & bay leaves become brittle & crinkly and the whole mixture becomes fragrant.
  • Immediately transfer the spices from the pan and allow it to cool down (they’ll actually take the moisture from the skillet & become cakey and you’ll lose the freshly toasted flavour)
  • Once they’re cool, put them in your spice grinder and grind until it resembles finely ground pepper.
  • Once cool & dry put in

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