During Diwali streets around India are illuminated by fireworks, sparklers, laughter…and smoke. This is a snapshot of my of experience celebrating in Chennai.
Diwali, or Deepavali as it’s called in South India, is the Festival of Lights, a celebration marking the start of the Hindu new year. It’s the most important festival in the Hindu calendar (Sikhs and Jains observe it too) as well as being a national holiday and as they are wont to do, Indians go large and loud on the celebrations.
In different parts of the country the festival is based on different Hindu stories: in northern India the focus is on King Rama’s defeat of Ravana to rescue his kidnapped wife, whereas in the south (which is where I was) it’s all about Lord Krishna’s defeat of the demon Narakasura. The stories carry the same symbolic meaning – the triumph of light over dark, of good over evil (that old chestnut). Across the country houses are adorned with candles and colourful lights, gifts exchanged, sweets shared and feasts devoured.
I was in Chennai for Deepavali, where celebrations start a day earlier than those in the north of the country. The experience ended up being an almost entirely firework-focused affair, which is no surprise when you know that Indians spend about $450m on fireworks per year, most of which are set off for Diwali celebrations.
Dusk fell in Chennai and we planned to head out in search of fireworks and celebrations. Our hotel receptionist pointed us in the direction of the Georgetown area of the city, where he suggested the festivities would be suitably raucous. And so to Georgetown we went.
The roads gradually got busier as we made our way towards Georgetown and in the distance we could hear the unmistakable sound of fireworks exploding, as patches of sky flashed with light. The local cows were understandably unimpressed by all the commotion.
Revellers were scattered all around the streets and on rooftops. When we arrived in Georgetown a few people spotted our cameras and, caught up in the excitement of the evening (and a little drunk), insisted that we take their photo.
I wasn’t quite prepared for the deafening screeches and bangs that lurked around every corner. Having fireworks set off right next to you is pretty bloody loud. The deeper we went into the district the more engulfed in smoke the streets became, with fireworks exploding in every direction.
Some streets sparkled with lights hanging from above, brightening the rubbish strewn roads with colour and warmth.
At times the atmosphere felt slightly apocalyptic, a smoggy haze hanging in the sky and a sinister red glow coating the streets. The thunderous bangs gave the impression of being in a war-zone rather than at a festival.
Traditionally, Diwali celebrations take place over five days; on the first day it’s considered auspicious to clean house, to shop for gold or to purchase cookware. Throughout the evening we saw shop owners spring cleaning their stores and giving them a lick of paint, a fresh start for the new year.
We turned a corned and bumped into a group of young guys who were completely lost in the excitement of the evening, they started dancing and jumping around with lit(!) fireworks in their hands. When they saw us they rushed over and began posing for the camera, fireworks in hand. Each one tried to be more daring than the last. At this point my main aim was to finish the evening without losing a limb, an eye or my hearing. Just a small ask.
The atmosphere on the streets was infectious and it was hard not to be sucked into the celebrations. It was especially heartwarming to see children and families out playing in the streets.
Our Diwali experience was in no way traditional, we didn’t visit a temple, or see any religious processions. In fact, I got the sense that the festival has become quite commercialised, like Christmas in Europe. Basically, an excuse for firework companies to sell massive amounts of fireworks and to encourage people to buy gifts. But we still saw plenty of stallholders selling temple offerings.
As we made our way home, nerves shredded and with hearing loss a distinct possibility, we passed a group of locals rolling out a reel of firecrackers. It went on and on and on and on, it must have been about 100m long. All of a sudden people started disappearing, running away. They’d lit the firecrackers and the explosions were headed straight for us, we split into different directions. I managed to find an open doorway and just made it into the corridor before the explosions fired past…but even from 10 metres distance they still reached me. And the sound was earsplitting. It was truly insane, but India, from you, I wouldn’t expect anything less.