What Is Diwali?

(Last Updated On: October 20, 2022)

A five (six in some regions) festival taking place in between October and November, Diwali is widely considered one of the most popular festivals observed in Hinduism. Diwali is also observed in Jainism, Sikhism, and Newar Buddhism. So, for those who don’t observe the festival, what is Diwali?

How the Date Is Chosen

Diwali is celebrated during Kartika, the eighth month in the Hindu and Tamil calendars and the seventh month in the Nepali, Maithili, and Bengali calendars. Normally it overlaps October and November, which is why Diwali takes place somewhere between the middle of October and the middle of November. Manu Hindu calendars hold Kartika begins when the Sun transits into the Libra constellation. 

The five-day festivities begin early in the fall with the end of the summer harvest. This is set to line up with the new moon and the darkest night in the Hindu calendar. Festivities begin two days before the new moon, and go for two more days after the new moon. As for the new moon itself, it’s considered the height of the celebrations and is widely considered to be the “main Diwali.” 

The Five Days

Diwali takes place over the course of five days, across the religions that observe it common focuses include food and the adornment of homes (also workplaces and temples) with candles, lanterns, fireworks, and the decoration of floors with rangoli art. Prepwork for Diwali can take place well in advance of the festivities, normally beginning after Dussehra, which is about 20 days before Diwali. Each day has a name with its own symbolism, so we’ll walk through them in order here.

Centrally, Diwali is widely tied to Lakshmi and Ganesha, the goddess of prosperity and the god of wisdom (respectively). Many other deities are connected to the traditional celebrations of Diwali, though which deities may depend on regional observations. 

Dhanteras

The beginning of Diwali and taking place on the thirteenth day of the dark two-week period of Kartik, Dhanteras is often the “big cleaning and decorating day.” Its name is derived from the words Dhan and teras, meaning “wealth” and “thirteenth” respectively. 

Prayers and offerings like rice cakes are commonly made to Lakshmi and Ganesha. Dhanteras typically symbolizes renewal for the oncoming new year. Dahn bears reference to Dhanvantari, the god of health who came into being on the same day as Lakshmi. 

Narak Chaturdashi

Following Dhanteras is Narak Chaturdashi. It is said that, on this day, the demon Naraksaur was killed by Krishna and Satyabhama. Sometimes this day is known as “small Diwali,” and is alternatively referred to as “Kali Chaudas.” Kali refers to an eternal darkness, where Chaudas means “fourteenth.” 

Narak Chaturdashi typically revolves around the removal of evil from one’s life, offerings may be made to Lord Hanuman, who symbolizes inner self-control. Rituals may include oil baths and washings to keep away the kali nazar, or “evil eye.” 

Lakshmi Pujan

The third day of Diwali is typically the height of the festivities. Typically this is the day temples are lit up; giving it the moniker “festival of lights.” This day is also normally the one where people are given days off (or shops will close early). Lakshmi is welcomed into homes to bring prosperity for the next year. Legends around Diwali are centered around the victory of good over evil, or the return of hope after a period of despair. Some observations on Diwali include retellings of these triumphs, which are said to have taken place on this night. 

Firecrackers are also lit to ward off evil spirits, a tradition sometimes associated with reverence for one’s ancestors. 

Annakut/Balipratipada/Govardhan Puja

While the day of Diwali signals the end of the dark fortnight, the day after marks the beginning of the bright fortnight in the Hindu lunisolar calendar. Regionally, this day may be called Annakut (which translates to “heap of grain”), though it has many other names as well. 

The beginning of the bright fortnight is associated with the defeat of Bali by Vishnu, though other traditions hold that this day honors a game of dice played by Parvati and Shiva (Parvati’s husband). In the latter story, Parvati wins and Shiva surrenders his clothing and jewelry to her; it is normally read as an allegory for the creation and dissolution of the world.

Ritually, the fourth day of festivities celebrates the bond between spouses. It may also be associated with another story when celebrated as Govardhan puja; specifically the Hindu god Krishna saving farming communities from inclement weather brought about by another angry deity. Krishna is said to have done this by lifting Govardhan mountain. 

Bhai Duj/Bhau-Beej/Vishwakarma Puja

The name Bhai Duj literally translates to “brother’s day,” and is accompanied by the celebration of bonds between siblings. Many stories surrounding the final day of festivities center around gods (typically brothers) visiting their sisters, or returning to them after some trial. 


Speaking of Hinduism, see if you know who’s practicing it here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.

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