Stories Behind the Rituals - Traditions & Customs of Deepavali

Malaysia’s melting pot has been marked by many different cultures, but only a handful has had an especially lasting influence on its citizens. The Indian ethnic group, albeit being the smallest of the three primary races (a mere 7.1% of the total populations), still adds noteworthy elements of colours, strokes and designs to the already vibrant Malaysian canvas in the form of effervescent religious celebrations and festivities. Home to the largest population of Overseas Indians, the Indian community in Malaysia is comprised mainly of Tamils, Malayalees, Telugus and Punjabis.

Tamils make up over 75% of the Indian population in Malaysia, with a bulk of the migration ensuing during the British colonial period. Most of them are now fourth-generation Indians in Malaysia, where in most cases, their great-grandparents were the first to step on our soil from Tamil Nadu to work in rubber and/or oil palm plantations. While a substantial majority practices Christianity, Hinduism remains the most practiced religion among the Tamils here.

For a community that left the land of their forefathers over a century ago, the Tamils are still very much in touch with the customs and traditions of the motherland. In a typical Tamil household, families still adhere to the traditional patrilineal rule of descent and continue to endorse traditional gender roles, even as it continues to embrace the developments of the 21st century. While being fluent in national language Bahasa Malaysia and English, Tamils still prefer to speak their mother tongue, especially amongst family members and fellow kinsmen.

The persistent traces of their origin are most aptly depicted in the various religious celebrations they observe throughout the year.

On the 7th month of the Hindu Lunar Calendar, Malaysian Hindu devotees – primarily of Indian heritage, a majority of who are of Tamil descent, celebrate the eagerly awaited and widely celebrated festival of lights – Deepavali; the equivalent to Christmas in western countries. For those who believe in its restorative abilities, Deepavali is a celebration of good over evil, a celebration that promises new beginnings.

While the essence of the celebrations remain the same across the diverse diaspora of Indians in Malaysia, each ethnicity carries unique traditions and customs during this auspicious celebration.

Preparations for Deepavali start weeks before the actual celebration with spring-cleaning of the home. “The physical preparations for Deepavali far outweigh the mental preparations. This is a little different than your weekly cleaning, where you usually just sweep, mop and vacuum. In the week leading up to Deepavali, every single corner of the house has to be cleaned out,” says 39-year old Kumaran Subramaniam, Senior Manager of Publications at Global Movement of Moderates. 

Kumaran, who is of Tamil descent and was privileged to celebrate Deepavali in Tamil Nadu in India, points out that there is a slight difference in how the Indians in Tamil Nadu celebrate Deepavali. “In India, it is very much a religious and family only affair. The delicacies served are also very traditional such as muruku, omapodi, atharasam and other Indian sweets. You won’t find modern cookies like jam tarts, chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies.”

Deepavali celebrations do not begin on the day itself but days before, when the family gathers to prepare Indian sweets, treats and murukku together. A lesser-known fact is that it is compulsory to prepare murukku or yennai palagaram – any food cooked in oil for Deepavali.

“It is usually the women who see to this. While it is in keeping with customs of the olden-days, it is also mainly because they are so much better at it. I usually get chased out of the kitchen within the first five minutes!” laughs Kumaran.

On the morning of Deepavali, Hindus awake before sunrise for a ritual oil bath known as ganga-snanam to signify the purging of one’s sins and impurities of the past. After that, prayers are performed on the family altar and some go to temples for special ceremonies and worship.  

The ganga-snanam is also practiced by the Malayalees who have ancestral origins in Kerala and its neighboring states in South India. There are now approximately 135, 000 Malaysians of Malayalee ethnicity.

Religious faith varies among the Malayalam speakers with a strong number of them being Catholic. However, there is still a sizable number of Malayalees who practice Hinduism and while they continue celebrating the more popular Hindu festivals, Deepavali and Thaipusam, the Malayalees place a greater importance on the harvest festival, Onam or Thiruvonam.

31-year old Advertising Sales Manager Vijay Nair explains, “Back in Kerala, in the real Malayalee culture, they don’t really celebrate Deepavali. Their main celebration is Thiruvonam. Deepavali is celebrated on a very low key. They go to the temple and perform prayers and that’s about it. “

However it is true that the traditions of the Malayalees during Deepavali have assimilated with that of their Tamil counterparts. “We’re not so traditional anymore, we prefer to celebrate Deepavali in a way that is more appealing to our personal tastes. So much so, that now, although Malayalees don’t actually celebrate Deepavali, we have full-swing celebrations in our homes,” says Vijay.

There are a few reasons why Deepavali is celebrated, the most popular being the mythological tale of Lord Krisha’s victory over Narakasura, the king of demons. While other Hindus believe that Deepavali is celebrated to commemorate the return of Rama after 14 years of exile. Whatever the reason for celebration, both Kumaran and Vijay agree that despite cultural differences both Tamils and Malayalees celebrate Deepavali to honor the victory of light over darkness, life over death.

A view that is shared wholeheartedly by professional rally racecar driver, Karamjit Singh, who is of Punjabi descent.

The Punjabis make up for a small minority among the growing two million citizens of Indian descent in Malaysia. They are usually set apart and continue to remain distinct from the Tamil and other Indian communities because of their strong sense of community and steadfast preservation of all things Punjabi and Sikh. In so much that, most Malaysians interpret the terms Punjabi and Sikh to be synonymous.

In added distinction from their Hindu brothers, the Punjabi-Sikh celebrations of Deepavali, or Diwali for the Punjabis, do not revolve around folklores, mythologies or deities. Perhaps it is important to bear in mind that the teachings of Sikhism are a combination of Hindu and Islamic elements in hopes of finding one god who transcends all religious distinctions.  

“There is no specific event in the Sikh religious history that we commemorate on Diwali” says Karamjit, “Historically, however, Sikhs celebrate Diwali the day after Bandi Chhorh Divas or “Freedom Day” to mark the return of Guru Hargobind, the 6th guru, who was freed from captivity at Gwalifor Fort.”

During Deepavali, even the simplest of rituals have a significant story to tell. One cannot step into a Deepavali home without noticing the colourful decorations that adorn the walls or the illumination of the abode with oil lamps or diyas. The illuminating of homes with lights and the skies with firecrackers is an act of homage to the heavens for blessings of health, wealth and knowledge that have been bestowed.

But Karamjit adds a more personal touch to his offerings: “The light of diyas signifies the spreading of happiness. The burning diya signifies a very important point - give happiness to others even if it means sacrificing a bit of yourself. Every year I light the diya with the same feeling that maybe this year I can light up the lives of others by doing good deeds.”

The Telugus too, are also mainly followers of Hinduism and for many their faith is as much their lifestyle as it is their religion. Unlike their Tamil and Malayalee counterparts, during Deepavali, they pay homage to Lord Vishnu. Traditional customs of the Telugu community have the daughters of the house perform mangala aarthi - dipping their fingers in sesame oil and applying it on the foreheads of the men in the family followed by the showering with akshintalu. After which the men put money on the aarthi thali, which the women share. The aarthi ritual is performed for wealth and good fortune.

While there is only one public holiday gazetted for Deepavali, in a typical Indian household, celebrations last anything between two and  seven days or as Kumaran so amusingly puts it, “In my household Deepavali lasts for as long as the murukkus and cookies are still available.”

EVERY DAY IS A NEW DAY

Even in a country where the Indians are a minority, there are countless variations regarding the history, customs and traditions practiced during Deepavali. Hungry for some enlightening of our own, Unreserved speaks to Dr. Manimaran Subramaniam, lecturer in the Department of Indian Studies, University Malaya & co-author of “Malaysian Indians Belief and Culture” and “Hindu Festival in Malaysia”.

Naturally, the first question has to be “Diwali or Deepavali?” He smiles, amused, as he replies, “There really is no difference. Diwali is a term used by North Indians and Deepavali, used by South Indians is a derivation of the words Deepam meaning lamp and Vali meaning a row - a row of lamps.”

But unbeknownst to most, especially the younger generations, is that Deepavali is not a festival widely celebrated by South Indians in India. The actual roots of the celebration do not date too far back in local history.

“During the British colonisation, North Indians – the Punjabis and Gurkhas – held more significant administrative roles in the government and police force and it was they, who requested that Diwali be recognized as the main celebration for all Indians. A request granted because it mirrored the customs of Delhi, the capital city of India,” he says.

Thus, even though the Telugus and Malayalees in India do not celebrate Deepavali on a large scale, the Telugus and Malayalees here do, because there has been an assimilation of Malaysian and Indian cultures.

However, due to an escalation in religious and cultural awareness among the Telugus and Malayalees in the last 30 to 40 years, greater observation and recognition is given to the Telugu celebrations of Ugadhi and the Malayalee celebrations of Thiruvonam.

The differences in the customs and traditions of Northern and Southern Indians came about as a result of varying interpretations of Hindu teachings that were altered to incorporate local values and customs.

In this day and age we have various ways and technologies to pass around information, in ancient times they created Puranic stories. Irrespective of which deity you worship, the Puranic stories always revolve around an asura or demon and ends when the deity destroys the demon; preaching the same truth, “Evil has to be destroyed and the divine must be celebrated.”

Coming Full Circle

In Hindu culture, every full moon is a day of celebration – a day for meditation, recharging of spiritual energy and the increasing of cosmic energy within.

Philosophically, every day is a new day that calls for a new round of cleansing of the spiritual and emotional self. The Hindu belief is that everyday should be one that guarantees happiness, harmony and tolerance but in the process, this gets waylaid as we pursue more material goals. 

He explains, “The cleansing of the spiritual self, which is or rather should be, a daily ritual and celebration, is now done in the presence of family and friends to promote reconciliation and renewal among family members.”

It just so happens that Deepavali has become a more domesticated celebration, which has led to it becoming a day for families and relatives to get together.

“From a psychological vantage point, humans are social animals. We need emotional and social attachments Celebrations like Deepavali play an important role in providing these attachments.

This article was published in the Unreserved on October 25, 2013