I have always found that one of the best ways to experience a place and understand its culture is to visit it during the height of its festival season. For India this time falls in the second half of October when the country prepares to celebrate the most important festival of the year – Divali, the Festival of Lights.
This emblematic festival is not only a fabulous manifestation of one of the world’s oldest religions – Hinduism, it also takes place at the end of the harvest season for farmers and the closing of the financial year for the business community.
Weather-wise this is also a great time to explore India’s beauty as the monsoon is long gone, the country is green after the torrential rains and nature and wildlife are at their peak. People feel fresh, energetic and hopeful hence they are ready to celebrate their version of New Year with Divali.
The “Festival of Lights” commemorates the victory of the forces of light over the forces of darkness when the good Lord Rama retuned from exile with his wife Sita after defeating the evil demon Ravana who had kidnapped her.
At this time, the whole country forgets its woes for five days and its ready to party.
Photo by: Tony Sernack
Personally one of best places to experience Divali for a visitor is the romantic lake city of Udaipur.
My partner and I love starting the third day of the celebrations and the most important one before day break at the flower market where he takes copious photographs of the highly skilled florists feverishly making garlands of fragrant jasmine and marigolds that local women purchase to adorn their homes. As they extend their arms to grab a few, the bags they are holding bulge with other festive trinkets including firecrackers and diyas, small clay lamps they lay all around the rooms and balconies of their houses to light the path for the goddess of wealth and purity Lakshimi should she pay a visit.
Before dawn the market has been completely emptied of its beautiful fresh flowers and for us it is time to make our way to one of the temples for the first puja (morning prayer) where women adorned in their newly bought silk saris and wonderful jewellery look like queens as they pay homage to their deities. Their heart-felt devotion and total immersion in the rituals is both touching and mystical.
As we leave the temple on the way back to the shore of lake Pichola, where the boat usually waits to take us back to the hotel in the middle of the lake, we see people by the ghats (steps) washing their clothes, bathing and preparing themselves for the upcoming celebrations.
“Here they listened to the tales of the bard and slept off their opiate amidst the cool breezes of the lake wafting delicious odours from the lotus flowers and as the fumes of the potion evaporated, they opened their eyes to a landscape to which not even its inspirations could frame an equal”
On one occasion a lady crouched on her doorstep gently pouring coloured sand on the ground invited me to help her. The sand took the shape of a lotus blossom. I admired her dexterity and creativity while she explained that she was drawing the crown of the lotus a symbol of welcome.
On this day her door as well as the doors of Indians throughout the nation are open to family and friends streaming in in endless processions with smiles on their faces and plates of delicious holiday treats to share.
Divali for Hindus is about bonding and celebrating the good things in life.
For visitors too Divali is a special time as the hotels around town make an effort to create the festive atmosphere within their own walls.
At our hotel too, as we walk through the spectacular courtyards of this centuries-old white marble work of art, we often see the staff putting the finishing touches to the amazing flower displays strewn all around. The tiny diyas line up the footpaths for the evening show that will take place as the fireworks will light the night sky a few hours from now.
The middle of the day is time to take a break and read or rest by the pool or in the spa. The place is idyllic and no other describes it better than Lieutenant-Colonel James Tod, a British officer who in the early nineteenth century wrote: “Here they listened to the tales of the bard and slept off their opiate amidst the cool breezes of the lake wafting delicious odours from the lotus flowers and as the fumes of the potion evaporated, they opened their eyes to a landscape to which not even its inspirations could frame an equal”.
On one of our visits, we left the magical surroundings of our retreat for a unique experience: an invitation to celebrate Divali at the palace of His Royal Highness the Maharana of Udaipur Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar with his family and guests.
A knock at the door of our room announced a waiter carrying a large box of special Divali sweets I had ordered on the management’s suggestion to take to the palace as a customary gift for the occasion. The boat was waiting and the chauffeur by the car on the other side of the lake opened its doors for us as the saw us approaching.
The streets leading to the palace were bustling with happy revellers bringing our car to a halt. We decided to walk the rest of the short distance to the enormous gates of the palace.
When we arrived we handed the sumptuous invitation to one of the guards and were escorted along a wide path at the end of which a marvellous shallow pond was surrounded by a large number of immaculately dressed and bejewelled guests drinking fine champagne and engaging in happy conversations. English was the household language as expected.
The Aide de amp Col. Rathore, introduced us to some of the other guests and the evening got underway flawlessly as the soft sitar music soared in the air and candlelights infused the night with a magic atmosphere of glitter and sparkles. The fireworks exploded overhead from time to time reminding us of the New Year.
Before the evening was over we talked to Princess Vijayaraj of Kutch, the charming wife of the Maharana, who told us about her charitable works and achievements as patron of the arts, she introduced us to one of the architects in charge of the palace’s on-going restoration works. He gave us great insight into what it takes to bring the pavilions back to their glorious beauty. We were spellbound by the details and the stories we heard and seeing our enthusiasm he invited us to come back in the following days to visit the art collection, the tiger skins on the study sofas reminiscent of a time when the Maharana’s ancestors were hunting on their lands now turned into national parks . The offer was to great to resist!
Soon it was time to pay our respects to our Royal hosts and their guests and thank them for their hospitality. Our fleeting glimpse into their world gave us the chance to experience the rich heritage and culture of this part of India with greater depth then ever before increasing our love and fascination for it.
The memories of that Divali echo in our mind and keep us going back time and time again. Udaipur will revive them every time we return for another visit and our clients will hear us describe the sumptuous occasion as we stroll pass the enormous doors of the Royal Palace one more time.