Deepavali Traditions

While this year the pandemic has managed to mute Deepavali celebrations, we were able to follow many of the traditions.

Our Deepavali Traditions

In our home, Deepavali starts early in the morning at 4 am. We keep all the new clothes in the puja room. All new clothes would have a dash of turmeric applied to them. The medical benefits of Turmeric are being discovered by the Western world now, but India has known its benefits for ages. We use it in our food liberally. Turmeric has been used as a dye for clothes. It acts as an antiseptic for wounds.

New clothes are touched with a dash of turmeric because they have changed several hands before reaching you. Turmeric wards off the germs … the way our ancestors made it a part of everyday food is by saying it denotes “Mangalam” or it is “auspicious”. We exchange Haldi-KumKum on important occasions. Btw the Mangalsutra that is tied around the bride’s neck during our weddings, is a thick string dipped in Turmeric.

On Deepavali day, we would heat a small quantity of Sesame oil with peppercorns and its applied on the head to all the members in the family by the eldest lady in the house. For the last few years Amma has been applying the oil to Krishnan and my head. My mother follows a tradition of taking the names of the eight chiranjeevis (immortals) Asura King Mahabali, Maha Rishi Markandeya, 6th Vishnu Avatar Parashurama, Vibhishana, Hanumana, Ved Vyasa, Kripa-Charya, and Ashwatthama and putting a dot of oil on the kitchen slab or the floor and then applying that to our heads.

A few days before Deepavali, we make the Deepavali Marundu. We usually collect all the herbs and spices whenever we visit Chennai because some of the spices are only available there. These spices are dry roasted and powdered. One year’s efforts help with making Marundu for two years :). This is the original chyawanprash – its made with ginger juice, a host of spices & herbs and ghee. The first thing we eat on Deepavali day is this Marundu, as it takes care of the digestive system that experiences an overload of goodies on Diwali day !

The “Nalungu” tradition

For the first few years of our marriage and when we were young children, the tradition of “nalungu” was followed. Turmeric and chuna (sunnambu in Tamil, Slaked Lime in English) is mixed together to get the red colour. This is applied on the feet after applying the oil on the head. My cousin did it for all the children in her house, since she lives in a joint family. Here’s a pic of the “nalungu”.

A kolam (rangoli) is also put outside the door and on the floor… the one tradition that I cannot follow because I cannot make a kolam to save my life. 🙂

Deepavali Traditions

My father would ask me to light a sparkler or a “chakri” right after this, but we have stopped doing it for decades now. Anyway with the cracker ban, there is no way we can do it in an apartment.

We take a “head bath”, the Indian expression for washing your hair 🙂 and wear our new clothes before eating some of the sweets and savouries made for Diwali. My mother wears her new saree for an hour or so and then changes into her regular clothes. She wears the new saree again in the evening.

Food on Deepavali day

Traditionally we make Morkozhambu (the South Indian Kadi), two types of subzi, a pachadi (Raita like), Vadai, Chakkara Pongal and rice for lunch. For breakfast its either Pongal, upma or Idli. We made pongal this time because we had made idlis a couple of days earlier ! For lunch I replaced the Morkozhambu with Aviyal and that way skipped making the two subzis. I made the chakkara pongal using the Gobindobhog aromatic rice that I had kept aside for special occasions. I skipped making vadai this time. All the food is first offered to the Gods before we eat. Actually with my mother-in-law this was a daily tradition. A beautiful everyday gratitude to the Gods for having put food on the table.

On festive auspicious occasions, food is made without onions and garlic in our homes.

The “Bakshanams” or goodies !

My mother-in-law would make her famous mixture besides thenguzhyal, murukku and thattai. My mother would usually make thenguzhyal and her signature ribbon pakoda. This time I tried making thenguzhyal, thattai and ribbon pakoda – got the thattai right, but struggled a bit with the thenguzhyal. Ribbon pakoda was easy because Amma makes that often. I don’t attempt murukku … too complicated for my liking :).

In sweets I made Thiratipal using cashew powder instead of thickening the milk. Krishnan and I loved it but Amma felt the milk one was better. Well, we don’t like dairy much, hahaha. I also made a few batches of chocolate peda for giving away to our milkman, dhobi and other service providers. We aren’t big on sweets so I always go easy on that. My cousin Rohini does the full menu for every occasion – she had made wheat halwa, ladoo and badusha. I enjoyed all the pictures that she sent !!

Again traditionally, all sweets were made using jaggery and we would never buy from a sweet shop. The idea was to share the sweets and savouries amongst family and friends. Unlike today’s situation where sweets are easily available and made of white sugar, this was a very limited intake of sweets. The emphasis was on home cooked, home made sweets and savouries rather than store bought ones. Automatically they were healthier and safer.

Sustainable eco-friendly traditions

The one common thread in all the Indian festivals is they are eco-friendly and its all about bringing families and friends together. Its not about stuffing your face with sweets and food and then spending the next week popping digestive pills. Food would be served in banana leaves or on steel/silver plates that you washed and reused. No plastic or one time plates. You took the sweets for distribution in a covered plate and got the plate back. No individual boxes that ended up in the trash. The savouries were eaten over a month usually… so it added very little to your waistline.

Most importantly, our traditional food is based on local produce and seasonal produce. We never make fried stuff during summers, its usually in monsoon and winters. Nuts are eaten during winters, not throughout the year except peanuts and sesame seeds. The Marundu (Chyavanprash type medicine) that is made during Diwali is eaten for a couple of months, a small tiny portion everyday. There is deep connection to mother Nature and we need to understand our traditions from that perspective.

I lit only oil lamps this year. In earlier years I had switched to the more convenient candles (realised recently that they add to the pollution) … but this time, I bought the clay diyas locally and lit the lamps using sesame oil. Every lamp that we lit this year is for our soldiers that stand guard on snowy peaks and hostile borders. May God keep them safe and may they always be victorious.

Deepavali Traditions
Oil lamps, one candle that’s left over from last year, and camphor

Lastly, all that is said to be rituals (“aacharam”) before or during a festival relate more to hygiene than some inane practice without logic. The pandemic is making us realise the value of washing our hands and feet, taking bath when you return home after being outside in a crowd and the liberal use of turmeric and other herbs.

Am recording these traditions because I may forget and as we become more modern and adopt the western style celebrations, our old traditional ways are being lost.

Do share your Deepavali traditions. Would like to compile these and maybe even publish them.

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