As the days get ever shorter Deepavali carries hope with it into the darkness which lies ahead. On the darkest night of the new moon in the month of Kartika, Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs will celebrate in their own way, but for each, over the course of the five days of festivities, the lighting of candles and oil lamps will symbolise both hope and gratitude.
Deepavali is believed to have originated in India more than 2000 years ago to mark the end of harvest and the seasonal transition into winter and like many of the great festivals of the agricultural calendar, it traditionally brings families together.
At its heart is the dark night of the new moon but as the month of Kartika progresses, and the moon waxes, it gives rise to great melas or fairs where rural communities gather to trade, to worship and to have fun. One such pilgrim festival is the Pushkar Camel Fair in Rajasthan. Pushkar Lake is known as the tirth raj, or ‘king of pilgrimage sites’ and is one of the most sacred sites in the Hindu faith.
There are hundreds of temples here and festivals throughout the year but the full moon day, known as Kartik Poornima is especially important. Marking Brahma’s yajna or fire-sacrifice the Kartika Mela is held in the days leading up to the full-moon and attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims who come to bathe in the holy waters of the lake. By descending from one of the many ghats into the Pushkar lake, the faithful can wash away the sins of a lifetime.
Perhaps because of this, or maybe because some of the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru are scattered in the lake, the mela at Pushkar is an important event for Indian politics and senior figures often arrive by helicopter to participate, however briefly.
Today, in anticipation of the new moon, our Chancellor Rishi Sunak placed candles at the entrance to Number 11 Downing Street expressing his hope that families will be able to celebrate Deepavali without breaking the rules on COVID-19. It’s a reminder, as Christmas approaches, that the virus is non-denominational and that we may all have to forego seasonal family gatherings in the weeks ahead. But for now, in the spirit of Deepavali, let’s give thanks for what we have and hope for brighter days ahead for family, friends and neighbours, of whatever faith or none.