Diwali, or Deepavali, is one of India's biggest festivals. The Sanskrit word deepavali translates as "rows of lights" and refers to the small oil lamps that are lit during the celebrations. Diwali is the Festival of Lights and it is celebrated according to the lunar calendar on the 15th day of the month of Kartika, usually in the beginning of November.
The Festival of Lights lasts five days although preparations start well beforehand. Diwali gifts are an important tradition in India, and the weeks leading up to Deepavali are the biggest shopping event of the year. Gifts are exchanged between friends, relatives and neighbors, and business owners give bonuses and gifts to their employees. In the past Deepavali gifts were often homemade sweets but today gifts can be lavish and expensive. Sweets are still given too, and are often offered to anyone who visits during the festival.
During the Diwali festival small oil lamps, called diyas, are lit inside and outside the house. A traditional Diwali diya is a small clay lamp that has a cotton wick and is filled with clarified butter (ghee). They are lit to welcome home the Hindu god Rama, the hero of the epic Ramayana. Rama had been sent to exile but returned home after victoriously fighting the evil demon king Ravana, who had kidnapped Rama's consort Sita.
With the help of a monkey army and the monkey god Hanuman, Rama traveled to the demon king's home island Lanka and managed to rescue the kidnapped Sita. As Sita and Rama returned to Rama's hometown Ayodhya, small lamps were lit to show them the way home. Today it is not just oil lamps that are lit in towns and cities but also colorful electric lights, especially outside shops and office buildings.
Diwali also celebrates Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity. Houses are cleaned thoroughly as Lakshmi is believed to visit clean houses and bring wealth for the New Year. Oil lamps are lit to welcome the goddess and doors and windows are often left open throughout the night for her visit. Decorative rangoli paintings (also called kollam) are drawn on doorsteps with rice flour. Lakshmi puja, a worship ritual for the goddess, is performed.
Another big part of Deepavali celebrations involves fireworks. Firecrackers are set off throughout the day and the night, and illegal firework factories make a huge business in India in the weeks leading up to the festival. Although the festival itself lasts five days, fireworks can continue for days after the main day of Diwali.