Deepavali: The Festival of Lights – Malaysia

Deepavali, also known as the Festival of Lights, is celebrated every year on the Hindu month of Kartik which falls around October or November on the Gregorian calendar. It is celebrated by Indians of Hindu faith in Malaysia. The festival signifies, as do other festivals such as Thaipusam, the triumph of good over evil. Deepavali is a four day celebration, even though in Malaysia only one day is marked as a public holiday to celebrate this festival. Deepavali is sometimes misunderstood because the Hindu New Year is celebrated in a very similar fashion as the Chinese New Year or Hari Raya.

Significance of Deepavali

Deepavali festival originated from South. Many Malaysian Indians came from India some decades ago before it declared its independence. The first day of Deepavali commemorates the victory of Lord Krishna over the demon Naraka. On the second day of Deepavali, Goddess Lakshmi emerged from Kshira Sagara (Ocean of Milk). The third day of Deepavali marks the day of the victory of the god Vishnu over the daemon king Bali. The fourth day or the last day of the festival, is when the God of Death Yama had feasted with his sister Yami. It is believed that during the feast, Yami placed an auspicious mark on his forehead known as the tilak. In other cultures with more significant population of Indians who came mostly from North India, the festival lasts for five days and it is known as “Diwali”. However, both festivals are very similar and important for Indians no matter if they come from southern or northern part of India. It’s India’s best-known festival.

Deepavali kolam in a shopping mall made from rice. Photo by Edna Zhou

The history of Deepavali

As you may know, all major festivals or events, especially religious ones, are surrounded by legends. There are legends about the origin of Deepavali festival as well. It basically marks the return of Rama after a long period of exile. In order to welcome his return, people light rows of oil lamps and exchanging greeting cards, clothing and other gifts. By the way, Deepavali means “row of lamps”, so it makes sense. The festival also celebrates the downfall and death of the evil demon Narakasura by Lord Krishna’s wife, Satyabhama. The last legend is closely associated with the harvest season in India. According to the legend, Lord Krishna enlightened farmers at a village and educated them about their duty as farmers to protect their cattle and farm instead of making preparations for an annual offering to Lord Indra. This angered Indra who flooded the entire village in his wrath. Lord Krishna then lifted Mount Govardhan and held it up to protect the farmers and cattle from the rain, defeating Indra. People believe that this incident gave rise to the “karma” concept of doing good and receiving good in return.

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Deepavali in Malaysia

The celebration of Deepavali in Malaysia would be incomplete without arrays of “kolam”. “Kolam” is a decorative art with intricate designs drawn on the floor with a variety of materials such as turmeric powder, rice grains and rice flour in a fluorescent spectrum of vibrant colours. These “kolam” come in many sizes, many of which are in giant proportions in malls and public halls in the country. Traditionally, the “kolam” is smaller and drawn at the doorstep of an Indian home usually by a young lady. While the “kolam” is now a symbol of Deepavali, it is actually a daily practice at some homes in India who would draw the “kolam” at the front of their houses every morning.

Similar to other festivals in Malaysia, the preparations for Deepavali usually precede with spring cleaning the entire house from top to bottom. The festival of lights would be incomplete without the presence of light from the glow of traditional oil lamps or from colorful electric bulbs. These oil lamps usually dot the entire house filling up the ambience with a warm and soft glow. The significant spiritual meaning of the lights is for one to be aware of his or her “inner light”. In Hindu philosophy, beyond the physical body and mind is something pure and eternal. Light is a powerful metaphor for knowledge and consciousness. Deepavali is the celebration of the inner light.

Temples are also decorated and spruced up in time for the festival. Flowers are placed in the abode of the temple. Fruit and coconut milk offerings by devotees increase as the day of the festival approaches. The temple is also subject to stringent spring cleaning in time for the festival to prepare for the arrival of Devi Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. It is believed that Devi Lakshmi visits homes and temples on the day of Deepavali and brings good fortune with her, wherever she goes.
Hindu devotees also undergo a bout of spring-cleaning themselves. They cleanse their body and minds prior to the festival by fasting or undergoing a strict vegetarian diet and spend hours in prayer and meditation prior to the big day.

Visible places of worship in Malaysia

If you’re in Malaysia during the festival you should definitely visit areas and provinces that have the largest communities of Indians. Kuala Lumpur, especially Brickfields and Little India are probably the most prominent place to witness preparations and the buzz of this tremendous festival. Street bazaars are set up with stalls selling vibrant saris and other traditional Indian attire. Delicacies such as biscuits, Indian pastries and sweets are sold too. Like every other festival in Malaysia, food holds a central and integral part and it’s almost as important as the festivals itself. People celebrating the festival take the opportunity to buy new clothes and food to welcome their visitors on the big day.

Colourful decorations being sold in Brickfields. Photo by udeyismail
Traditional attire being sold prior to Deepavali. Photo by udeyismail

All major Hindu temples, such as Sri Mahamariamman in Chinatown and Sri Kandaswamy Kovil in Brickfields, are full of various entertainments and activities. You must visit these places of worship to witness the hustle and bustle that go on in the vicinity of the temples as they get ready for Deepavali. As I’ve said before, the “kolam” cannot be missed; otherwise you won’t get the whole idea of this festival. All major malls in Kuala Lumpur display the most vibrant and beautiful portraits willing to have the best “kolam” in the country.

Blossom Motif Kolam
Here’s an example of a kolam using coloured rice grains in a traditional lotus blossom motif. Photo by resakse
Kolam Kuala Lumpur
An amazing kolam painted in one of the malls in Kuala Lumpur. Photo by jeremyfoo

Classical Indian dances such as Bharatnayatnam and Kathaknatyam accompany exhibitions in shopping malls and temples. Bharatnayatnam is a classical dance that originated from the Tamil Nadu state in South India and it basically dates back to 1000 B.C. Amazing, isn’t it? It is now performed by females (most of the time) and accompanied by classical Carnatic music. The dance is considered to be a mystical representation of a “fire dance. So, the movements of a Bharatnayatnam dancer usually resemble the flame.

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On the eve of Deepavali, last minute preparations are usually made for the first day. On this day, past quarrels are forgotten and forgiveness is sought from the elderly to repent for any mistakes made by the younger ones. On the morning of the festival, many devotees get up before sunrise for a customary oil bath ritual. It is believed that the oil bath is equivalent to taking a bath in the majestic and spiritual Ganges River in India itself.

Before the bath begins, the elder people in the house apply gingelly oil, made from sesame seeds, to the heads of the younger members. Shiyakai powder, made from a native South Indian shrub is used as a shampoo to wash the oil off. Then everyone puts on their best clothes, usually new clothes bought before the festival and gathers to pray and have breakfast together. A traditional meal is served which normally comprises of idly (steamed rice flour and dhall cake), boondhi (a kind of sweet), sambal (lentil curry), mutton and other curry dishes. Other traditional sweets and snacks of Deepavali festival are omapodi (a crunchy and spicy snack in the shape of short strings), vadai (a donut-like pastry that is occasionally eaten with curry) and laddu (a traditional Indian sweet made from ground coconut and sweetened with sugar).

They also make sure that the oil lamps are set up properly and that the flame won’t went out before the day ends. Furthermore, they put Mango leaves on doors to bring blessings into the home. In fact the entrance of every single home in town is often the centerpiece of Deepavali decorations to welcome Devi Lakshmi. Colourful decorations with traditional motifs of kolam design such as the lotus blossom, bells, flower garlands, colourful electric lamps and mirrors are used very often as well. And of course they don’t forget their altars. They are decorated similarly using very colourful and vibrant decorations to usher in Devi Lakshmi.

New clothes are smeared with a little sandal paste and kept at the altar. The festival is akin to Chinese New Year and Hari Raya, where relatives and friends visit each other’s houses and give packets of money to the younger ones. The packets of money derive from a traditional Chinese New Year custom. People believe it brings the person good fortune, wealth and prosperity. However, there’s another very interesting tradition called the “open houses”. Someone throws a huge party and opens his or her doors to all relatives and friends of all races and religion for a good time and a good meal. This practice is also upheld by politicians and other prominent figures in the country. They open their doors to the public during this time of the year, similar to Chinese New Year and Hari Raya.

Oil lamps Deepavali
Oil lamps symbolize the triumph of good over evil. Photo by Hari Prasad Nadig

Many women buy gold, silver or new utensils for the house on the first day of the festival. It’s the most auspicious time to make such purchases. After sunset, it is customary to light up earthen oil lamps and place it all around the house. This is in alignment with the belief that one should proceed from darkness (spiritual ignorance) to lightness (spiritual knowledge). It is also believed that the oil lamps attract Devi Lakshmi who will bring wealth and prosperity when she visits the house.

Superstitions are part of the norm. Sweeping of the floor is not allowed (similar to Chinese New Year) as it is believed that this would sweep away all good luck from the floor out of the house.

On the third day of Deepavali, fireworks are set off to ward off evil. Although, fireworks are illegal in Malaysia, the practice is still rampant in the country and especially in large Indian neighbourhoods. Temples during the festival are usually very crowded because families and friends make their way there to pray and to give offerings. Prayers are conducted during all four days of the festival and for certain devout Hindus, they observe strict vegetarianism for the entire festival period.

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The fourth and last day of Deepavali is usually a day when brothers and sisters pay homage to each other. According to the legend, Lord Krishna visited his sister Subhadra after slaying the demon King Narkasura. The sister performs an ‘aarti’ of the brother praying sincerely for a long and prosperous life. On this day, sisters normally invite brothers into their homes.

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