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A colourfully designed kolam, in the form of flower, made of uncooked rice, powder and chalk in preparation of Deepavali celebration tomorrow at Little India, Brickfields. -NSTP/File pic

THIS weekend is Deepavali. A festival which, while being syonymous with the Indian community, seems deeply rooted in a fundamentally universal and human need for hope.

I must confess that, prior to my move to Malaysia, I had never heard of Deepavali nor Diwali for that matter. So you will wonder what I can possibly tell you about it, that you do not already know. Well, nothing, obviously. But please bear with me here.

Deepavali might well be the most colourful festival I have ever witnessed. Truth be told, nothing can hold a candle to the brilliance of colour combinations we see arranged in rangolis, in festive attire, in food presentations and lighting displays.

Since we are on the subject of candles, let me draw a few comparisons. Deepavali is the festival of light, hence the rows of pretty little diyas (oil lamps) that illuminate the nights of celebration.

People all over the world have always felt the need to bring light into the darkness. Literally and figuratively. While today we simply flip a switch upon entering a room after dark, the need to fight gloom has by no means lost its symbolism.

The Chinese observe the Spring Lantern Festival at the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations; carrying elaborate paper lanterns through the dark streets in a symbolic attempt to shed their mistakes and shortcomings of the past year and get a new and better start.

The Mid-Autumn Lantern Festival we know here in Malaysia and in Singapore celebrates light as an offering, a precious good of sorts, to give thanks for a good harvest.

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, celebrated this year during the dark month of December, requires its people to light candles or oil lamps in a specific order at nightfall.

The purpose of the Hanukkah lights is not the lighting of the house within, but rather the illumination of the house without. Placed by the window, these lights are a symbol of hope and good tidings yet to come.

In Scandinavia, Saint Lucy’s Day, or Santa Lucia is a festival of light celebrated on Dec 13.

Originally observed on the night of winter solstice, the longest night of the year, the date was moved due to several calendar reforms throughout the centuries. Yet again, Santa Lucia’s most prominent feature is, you might have correctly speculated, candles.

According to legend, Lucy, a 3rd-century martyr, carried a candle-lit wreath on her head to light her way and leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible to persecuted Christians hiding in Roman catacombs. This festival too commemorates light defying darkness, good prevailing over evil.

Christmas marks yet another, an obvious instance of candlelight being at the centre of a celebration, of course. The tradition of decorating evergreen trees with candles at night symbolises Christ bringing light, or good, to the world.

But, the tradition is much older than that, as it was borrowed from pagan Yule rituals that celebrate the return of the light of the Sun, as the days grow longer after the solstice. Here again, the main theme being the good of light that thwarts the evil that hides in darkness.

Celebrations, as varied as bonfire lightings on Walpurgis Night and candles on a birthday cake, are further examples of the same idea.

Astute merchants, who, in a perpetual state of emergency can’t seem to see past a golden opportunity for yet more lucrative business, have hijacked many festivals the world over. Deepavali is no exception, of course.

Yet greed aside, Deepavali shares the common theme of light that conquers dark, good that overrides evil with countless other traditions rooted in the human spirit. It is one of many Malaysian examples that show how we are much more similar than we are different. This should give us hope.

And hope, it seems to me, is something we all need more than ever.

The writer is a long-term expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition and unapologetically insubordinate


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times

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