Light against darkness

Written by Pat Ganese, photography courtesy Dean Drakes

This year, on nights leading up to and including October 21, the traditional oil lamps of our Indian ancestors will be lit in parks, courtyards, streets and villages across Trinidad and Tobago. To light a single “deya” is to dispel darkness. During the festival of Divali, thousands of deyas on walls, walkways and supported on frames of split bamboo in schoolyards and on village streets memorialise the spirit of ancestors as well as the willingness of a multi-cultural nation to find harmony in shared celebration.

Try lighting a tiny cotton wick soaked in oil, in even the slightest breeze. Imagine a row of about 50 or more little lamps waiting to be lit as the twilight descends to deep dark. It is an exercise that becomes a meditation on patience, perseverance, while you continue to display a calm and cheerful disposition; much as you might like to walk away and say this is a waste of time. But how can you walk away when around you serene ladies in elegant saris, wide-eyed children and entire families are happily tending—lighting and re-lighting—the lights of Divali.

The Festival of Lights in Trinidad and Tobago belongs to everyone. And at some time, every one of us— Trinidadian of whatever heritage or ethnicity—has tended a row of deyas at Divali. It is this spirit that has given Divali, a traditional Hindu observance, such universal resonance: to dispel the darkness with a single light; to be that light in the dark; to conquer evil with the light of a single soul. It is also no coincidence that this festival takes place in the time of the year associated with the darkest night, and other observances such as Halloween or the Christian remembrances of All Saints and All Souls; and ultimately the “return of the sun” that the Christmas date immortalises.

The interest around Divali takes place at secular and religious levels. In schools such as Queen’s Royal College, one of the historic Magnificent Seven buildings on the western side of the Savannah, split bamboo structures are planted in front of the school within the week before the holiday. At dusk, the deyas are filled with coconut oil and lit. Similar observances take place in many schools around the country.

In towns and villages such as Tunapuna, Felicity, Chaguanas, observances begin in the weeks before Divali with the Ramleela, an annual enactment of the Ramayan. The story told by the Hindu sage Tulsidas has been kept alive in this way for decades, passed on in the oral traditions of generations of Indo-Trinidadians.

Ramleela is a dramatic presentation that takes place over ten nights, and recounts the adventures of the king Rama and his wife Sita during 14 years in exile. Rama’s return to Ayodhya on a path lit by the symbolic light of thousands of deyas signals his triumph over the evil king Ravana who is burned in effigy in a huge bonfire.

The theme is echoed in domestic observances as devout Hindus clean and decorate their homes, perform poojas (ceremonial worship, prayers) and anticipate the Divali with new saris for the women of the household, and preparation of sweetmeats and food for visitors who are invited to be part of lighting ceremonies.

Divali Nagar, a village or marketplace located on grounds just outside Chaguanas,is opened two weeks before Divali. Events hosted there include a yagna or discourse on aspects of Hindu religious life and activity. Attractions at the nagar include exhibitions on Hindu religious and cultural traditions, cultural programmes, food and shopping.

In the days just before the holiday, young men in villages such as Patna (in the Diego Martin foothills of the Northern Range) go out to cut bamboo and strip it into canes whose notches will be used to support the tiny oil lamps. Patna rose to prominence a few years ago because of the artistry of a few gifted bamboo benders, who, each year, shaped their bamboo canes according to themes – animals, vehicles of transport, and other imaginative forms which were outlined in lights on Divali night.

While the festival marks the triumph of Rama (the avatar or incarnation of God) over the evil usurper Ravana, observances include prayers to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity; or Saraswati, wisdom. The Sanskrit word Deepavali means array of lights, hence the victory of light over darkness. The name was popularly modified to Divali in northern India.

The date of Divali is based on the Hindu calendar, which has solar years and lunar months. In the Gregorian calendar, it falls generally in the months of October or November. In 2006, the new moon day, which is the third and most important day of the festival, falls on October 21. M

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