At Diwali, a Malaysian family mixes local traditions with ancient Hindu rituals

For one Malaysian family descended from Indians who migrated from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the rituals of Diwali have been renewed every year for four generations.

Krishna Shanmugam, left, makes a kolam in front of his parents house with his daughter Mageswari, 4 and his wife, Jasmira, on Oct. 26, 2019, the eve of Deepavali. The kolam, an intricate Indian folk art design made from colorful rice or rice flour, usually decorates the entrance of the house on Deepavali. It is a display meant to welcome prosperity and blessings. This year the Shanmugams chose to make a peacock kolam, an animal which is considered auspicious to Hindus, symbolizing kindness, compassion, safeguarding and knowledge. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu

(RNS) — Indian communities around the world are observing Diwali, the festival of lights. Diwali, which in Sanskrit means “row of lights,” is celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists. Though the occasion holds different meanings for each of them, most celebrate the triumph of light over dark, good over evil.

For the approximately 2 million people of Indian ancestry in Malaysia, Diwali has become not only a religious celebration but also the most important cultural festival of the year, bringing together Malaysians of all religions and ethnicities.

The Shanmugams, descendants of Indians who migrated from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, have preserved the rituals of Diwali for four generations. Their Diwali traditions and beliefs are commonly found in Tamil communities.

Light is the central theme of Diwali, recalling the story told in the classic Hindu epic “Ramayana” of Lord Rama’s arrival in his city, Ayodhya, after a 14-year exile. Welcoming him, Ayodhya’s citizens displayed rows of oil lamps all around the city to guide his way. Today the light displays come in many forms, from the traditional oil lamps to massive fireworks. Playing with sparklers is traditionally a must for children during Diwali. The Shanmugams welcome their friends and their children on Diwali eve to light sparklers. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu

For the start of Diwali, the Shanmugams chose to go to the Indian neighborhood in Klang, where the shops stay open late for the thousands of people doing last minute shopping. At midnight, the whole street is flooded with fireworks, firecrackers and smoke, set off by shop owners on the street. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu

The four Shanmugam siblings, with their partners and children, gathered on the eve of Diwali at their parents’ house in Klang, a town at the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, preparing for the celebration. 

“In India, Deepavali is not the most important religious celebration over the year, but here it became the cultural holiday for which we hold open houses and invite all our family and friends to celebrate. Muslims have Ramadan, Buddhists have Chinese New Year. For us it’s Deepavali,” said Mageswary Krishna, using another popular spelling of the festival name.

The children begin their Diwali morning by receiving an oil bath from their mother. Oil baths are given by elders to youngsters as a ritual of purification. Afterward, the oil is rinsed with holy water from the Ganges, which is thought to complete the cleansing and bring blessings. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu


Hindu worshippers light oil lamps at a local temple on Diwali morning, Oct. 27, 2019, in Malaysia. For Hindus, light is the symbol of goodness, purity, good luck and power. Lit oil lamps symbolize the victory of good over evil. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu


The Shanmugams and their guests enjoy a meal together on Diwali, Oct. 27, 2019. “I cooked the traditional dishes together with my family. We always do that,” said Devaki Rani. “There are some dishes that are a must for (Diwali) in our family – chicken curry, mutton curry, idli, thosai, biryani rice. We also eat sweets like ghee balls and snacks like muruku. When you start cooking muruku you know it’s the festive season,” she added. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu

The whole family touches the feet of their elders, Shanmugam and Devaki Rani, during an ancient Indian ritual of giving blessings. The ritual is meant to show respect toward the elders and their experience, achievements and wisdom. The parents, in turn, bless their children to have a healthy, good and prosperous life. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu

Sudheshna and her husband receive blessings and gifts from her parents as it is the couple’s first Diwali since their wedding, called Thala Diwali, traditionally celebrated at the bride’s house. The newlyweds, and especially the son-in-law, are pampered by the wife’s family and showered with gifts, as the family welcomes and bonds with the new family member. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu

The origins of Diwali can be traced to harvest festivals in ancient India, which are celebrated differently from one region to the next. In some parts of India, Diwali marks the victory of Lord Krishna over the demon Narakasura. In other regions, it is a celebration of the return of Lord Rama; his wife, Sita; and his brother Lakshmana after their exile. Diwali also celebrates the birthday of the goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi.

In Indian communities around the world, the traditions and background legends came together in a big festival of multiple meanings. The five-day celebration is a time of cleansing and purification, both of the self and the surrounding environment, in order to receive the joy and prosperity that this festival is all about.

Devaki Rani watches as her children leave to visit other family and friends at the end of the Diwali reunion in her home. RNS photo by Alexandra Radu


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