Across North America, fall brings football, colorful leaves, and Thanksgiving. But for the thousands of Georgians of Indian heritage, and more than 2 million Hindus across the United States, the season also means celebrating Diwali, the most important holiday of the year in India. The observance is spread across a few days before and after the main day, Lakshmi Puja, when temples host elaborate services. The actual date varies from October to November, but it takes place this year on November 12.
Known as the “Festival of Lights,” Diwali is a time when worshippers light clay lamps to celebrate the inner glow that repels spiritual darkness. Celebrations are rooted in traditions of oral storytelling and joyful revelry, including mounds of decadent treats, festive finery, and fireworks. For many, it represents their faith in the goodness of humanity.
Like all holidays, Diwali feels best when celebrants are making memories with loved ones. Shailaja Pandya of Johns Creek says, “My husband often procrastinates, but when he finally brings down the box of Diwali decorations from the attic, we truly begin to feel the joy of Diwali.”
From deep-cleaning the home to preparing seasonal treats and purchasing new clothes, each day is filled with anticipation. Richly illustrated storybooks, jewelry, and money remain popular gifts. Family elders look forward to reading to young ones, passing along stories that shaped their own childhood traditions. Preparations begin at places of worship for community theater productions that retell the treasured tales.
Families cook together, sharing traditional dishes across generations. Beena Rao Haritsa of Johns Creek says, “Distributing Diwali sweets to friends and neighbors was and is very much part of how we celebrate Diwali.” Local TV journalist Archith Seshadri usually gathers with his brother, his wife, and his in-laws for a luncheon. And Pandya says, though she used to prepare elaborate recipes handed down from her late mother, “Now that my children are older, we simply gather with friends and go out to Indian restaurants with a good Diwali buffet, and make a charitable donation to a meaningful cause, like Atlanta [Community] Food Bank.”
Distributing alms and charity to those in need is especially important to Hindus who follow the teachings of Swaminarayan. This community observes Annakut—which literally means “mountain of food”—with intricate displays of food offerings to Lord Krishna that are later distributed in the community.
Many Indian festivals involve fasting, but Diwali is an exception, celebrating bounty with shared feasts. Typical dishes include endless varieties of mithai, or fudge-like treats made from milk; ladoo, or decadent handmade croquettes of sweetened flour; sweets like gulab jamun and rasgulla; and more, as well as savory snacks like deep-fried chakli, crunchy chiwda made of rice, mixed nuts, and spicy poori bread. Families craft complex floor decorations called rangolis, using colorful materials like fine sand, rice, flower petals, or even whole grains. Symbolically inviting good energies and welcoming friends, rangolis are typically created near the front door on any clean, flat surface that can remain undisturbed. Floating flower rangolis, made in large, shallow platters of water, are particularly popular in large venues.
Atlanta enjoys a robust, diverse Indian community and is home to a national consulate. Its many places of worship observe different ways to gather, pray, and celebrate that reflect regional differences. Whether that involves retelling the story of Lord Rama, celebrating the power couple Lord Balaji and his wife Goddess Padmavati, marking the triumph of Goddess Kali, remembering how Lord Vishnu vanquished the demon Narakasura, or telling how Lord Krishna rescued his followers—Diwali honors the victory of all that is good and righteous over evil. In each interpretation, the avatars are humanized and adorned as living beings and felicitated for their benevolence and strength to dispel negative forces that hinder spirituality and prosperity. By sharing light and joy, celebrating family and community, and observing charity, Diwali is much more than a festival. It rejuvenates the soul of a people.
Celebrating in Atlanta
Some services are open to the public, but be aware that temples have recommended codes of dress and conduct.
Places of worship
• The Hindu Temple of Atlanta, Riverdale
• Ambaji Shree Shakti Mandir USA, Lake City
• The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Temple, Lilburn
Festive groceries & treats
• Global Mall, Norcross
• Patel Brothers, Decatur, Kennesaw, Suwanee
• Cherians, Cumming, Decatur, Duluth
• Gokul Sweets, Decatur
• Shayona, Lilburn
• Bhindi Jewelers, Decatur
Diwali Stories & Legends
Not all Diwali observances are the same. Different regions of India celebrate different traditions and mark the occasion differently. Here are some of the most important variations:
In Northern India, Diwali stories are centered around the life, exile, and coronation of Lord Rama, recounted in the epic poem Ramayana (500-100 BCE). The rescue of his wife, Queen Sita, from the clutches of King Ravana is observed over Navratri, a 10-day festival that precedes Diwali by a little over a fortnight. Once the Queen is rescued, preparations for Diwali can begin, celebrating the return of Prince Rama to his kingdom of Ayodhya and his coronation as the King of Ayodhya. Festive finery is purchased, homes are cleaned and decorated with flowers, traditional oil lamps or diyas are lit, and rangoli are created to “guide” the returning king to his kingdom. The coronation ushers in a Hindu New Year and is marked with large platters of elaborate, decadent treats using the best ingredients—made as offerings to the deity, and then distributed among visiting friends and family, banishing all darkness with abundant joy.
The legend of Kali, an incarnation of the divine Goddess Durga, guides Diwali celebrations for many people originating in Eastern India. According to Hindu mythology, Goddess Durga took the form of Kali to kill demon Raktabeej. The killing of the demon is celebrated as Kali Puja, and the following day—known as Lakshmi Puja—coincides with the Hindu New Year celebrated across the rest of India. Unlike the rest of the country that observes strictly vegetarian religious offerings, those commemorating the Goddess Kali during Kali Puja include an elaborate meal centered around hearty meat dishes made with fish and goat meat.
In Western India, Diwali includes tales of Lord Krishna’s killing of demon King Narakasura to restore order. Many families will include an oil bath with gingelly oil to symbolize ushering in new blessings from Goddess Lakshmi. The festival of Govardhan Puja follows Diwali, based in a story where Lord Krishna rescues his followers against the floods created by Lord Indra. As with the rest of India, elaborate Rangoli designs, strings of flower garlands, and lots of diyas decorate doorways and homes to make the fall nights sparkle with hope and usher in new beginnings.
The religious teachings of Swaminarayan, an ascetic who became a religious leader guide many in North Central India. The community sees Diwali as a time for introspection and charity. Their celebrations include meaningful visits with loved ones and philanthropy. The Jain community across India marks Diwali with a unique kind of rangoli: Sathiya or Gahuli. It is made entirely using grains of uncooked rice, lentils, or a combination. The community believes that even insects deserve to take home a meal. The designs are simple, with channels for the insects to walk through. At the end of each day, the grains are collected and left out for the birds.
Across parts of Southern India, festivities evoke the blessings of Lord Venkateshwara, or Balaji, and his wife, Goddess Padmavati. Others felicitate Lord Shiva and his sons, Ganesha and Kartikeya. “My family is from South India, specifically Madras/Chennai. We usually dress up in new clothes, and the house is decorated with diyas,” says Seshadri, the Atlanta TV journalist. “Since Navaratri is usually celebrated before, our Diwali is not as big as Navaratri but is still an important tradition. We also don’t celebrate it as a ‘new year’ because Tamilians celebrate New Years in April.”
This article appears in our November 2023 issue.