Deepavali, the row of lights


Deepavali is characterised by many different decorations, but perhaps the most closely associated with the celebration are earthen oil lamps called ‘diyas’, reflective of the Sanskrit roots of the festival’s name, ‘deepa’ (lights) and ‘avali’ (row). — Bernama photo

THESE last few weeks I have received tons of Deepavali wishes. I am sure most of your phones are heavy with this seasonal goodwill greeting depicting rows of beautiful oil lamps.

‘Rows of lamps’ — that is what I found out what ‘Deepavali’ means.

There are several significant legends associated with the festival. One story is that it was the celebration of the return of Lord Rama, the King of Ayodhya, his wife Sita and his brother Lakshmana after a 14-year exile. It is believed that to welcome them back, the people of Ayodhya lit oil lamps along the way to light their path in the darkness.

The story of Rama is from the ‘Ramayana’, the journey of Rama. It is part of the Hindu epic of 24,000 verses and said to be over 3,000 years old. I have heard of this religious legend since I was young but never got around to reading it. Then a few years ago, I had the good fortune to see a version of it performed by the Kampuchean National Dance Troupe.

The setting was exquisite – on the ground of the ancient Angkor Wat – and the experience was unforgettable. We sat under the starry night sky with a balmy breeze caressing our faces, watching the classical dance drama being performed, true to its original form, on the very stage where a thousand years ago the ‘Apsaras’ (court dancers) performed for the royalty of the day.

As we enthused about the performance, our guide Jang, a wise old head, told us that to regard the Ramayana as a mere story would be to miss the point. It would be like looking at the form without appreciating the substance. According to him, the Ramayana, like other religious legends, is a medium for teaching human values and frailties.

Jang went on to retell the story.

The ancient King Dasaratha of Ayodhya had four sons. The eldest and heir to the throne was Rama. The King, being old, decided to hand over the kingdom to Rama.

However, Kaikeyi, the second wife of the King, whose son Bharata was the next in line, became envious. She demanded King Dasaratha to hand over the throne to Bharata.

King Dasaratha, sorrowfully, had to agree.

Why? It appeared Kaikeyi was not just a pretty princess – she was a mighty warrior as well.

In a battle in their early life, Dasaratha got wounded and lost consciousness. The brave princess Kaikeyi saved the then-young king’s life by bravely taking over control of his war chariot and skilfully drove it out of the battlefield. She removed arrows from Dasaratha’s body and revived him.

In gratitude, the King in return for saving his life, granted her two boons.

At the announcement of the proposed abdication, Kaikeyi invoked these boons. She asked for the banishment of Lord Rama to the dark forest of Danka and the coronation of her own son, Bharata.

Though it hurt him to do so, Dasaratha, being a man of integrity, agreed to be bound by his promise and acceded to the demands.

Rama, on the other hand, considered it his duty to obey his father and carried out his wish without any fuss. Knowing the hard life in the forest, Rama asked Sita, his newlywed, to stay behind in the palace, but Sita, the faithful wife, insisted on joining him.

When Lakshmana, another half-brother (King Dasaratha had three wives), heard of the news of the banishment, he pleaded to accompany Rama and act as his protector.

Bharata, who was away while this was going on, arrived at the city only to be greeted as a king.

He was horrified when he found out the truth. Being a man of honour, he went to look for Rama in the Danka Forest to offer back the throne, but Rama reminded him of their duty as the sons obeying their father.

Reluctantly Bharata accepted his brother’s decision, but he asked for Rama’s sandals to be placed in front of the throne as a token that he, Bharata, ruled under the authority of Rama.

While as king, Bharata wore only the garb of a hermit as long as Rama was in banishment.

Rama, Sita and Lakshmana lived in the forest for many years. One day, Ravana, the King of the Demons, spied upon Sita. Captivated by her beauty, Ravana lusted after her.

While in the forest, Rama drew a magic circle around their abode to protect Sita. Knowing this, Ravana sent his lackey, Maricha, into the forest who took the form of a golden deer to lure Sita out of the protective circle. Sita was abducted and taken to Ravana’s Island Kingdom of Lanka.

Rama and Lakshmana mobilised their army in pursuit, and they recruited the help of Hanuman, the mighty Monkey God. They marched on to the very end of the land mass, but found their way blocked by the sea.

Hanuman ordered his army of monkeys to drop thousands of rocks in the sea to create a land bridge to the island of Lanka.

An epic battle of good against evil ensued. At last, Rama came face to face with Ravana, who in his true form was a nine-headed demon. Rama slew Ravana and the reign of the demons was over. The 14 years had also elapsed – Rama and Sita, accompanied by the loyal Lakshmana, returned to their own country in triumph.

“Can you see that the story is more than just a battle, a triumph of good over evil?” ask Jang, our guide and storyteller.

Indeed, as I retraced the story, I noted the integrity of King Dasaratha, the envy of Kaikeyi, the filial piety of Rama, the loyalty of Lakshmana, the love of Sita, the humility of Bharata, the lust of Ravana, the deceit of Maricha, the courage of Hanuman, etc.

In fact, it covered the whole range of virtues and vices.

The deeper meaning of Deepavali – the symbol of the rows of lights leading us out of the darkness.

We thank our friends who vitalised the message of Deepavali. May we be guided by the light of humanity to lead us out of this darkness that is threatening our world.