The darkest night at the end of a month — and millions of lamps and candles at their brightest best. And a little away from the flames, also courtesy of flowerpots and sparklers, are platefuls of food. Crowding around those sweets and savouries are eager, hungry mouths, awaiting a chance to get down to the most important part of the evening.
This, perhaps, is the simplest sketch of Diwali, one of the biggest autumn festivals in India. A festival that is bigger in the north and the west of the country. A festival that originally celebrated a good harvest, when, after a bountiful monsoon, farmers sowed the seeds for the next yield. (Somewhere down the centuries the legend of a king returning to his father’s kingdom after a 14-year exile became entwined with the Festival of Lights; as did that of the birth of the Hindu goddess of prosperity.) And like every other harvest festival across the world — Thanksgiving in North America, Moon Cake Festival in China, Takayama Festival in Japan, and Rice Harvest Festival in Bali — food is the all-powerful protagonist in the Diwali show.
India has been called the “land of festivals” and there are probably too many to count, but Diwali is special. First, it is widely celebrated, not only on the subcontinent but wherever there is an Indian diaspora. Diwali is a public holiday in Fiji, Guyana, Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Trinidad and Tobago and, since 2016, in Sindh province in Pakistan. This also means that there isn’t one fixed way of celebrating Diwali. More people and more places translate to customs and foods that reflect local tastes and customs.
India itself has many incarnations for Diwali. One website lists over 40 separate festivals celebrated around this time (www.Diwalifestival.org). North Indians celebrate the triumphant return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya after a resounding victory over Ravana, the king of Lanka. For businessmen, especially in Gujarat and Maharashtra, Diwali marks the start of the business year and a time to honour Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. South Indians celebrate Naraka Chaturdasi to commemorate the slaying of a demon by Lord Krishna. On Bandi Chhor Divas, Sikhs celebrate the release of their sixth guru, Hargobind, from imprisonment by the Mughals. For Jains, Diwali marks the anniversary of the day on which Mahavira attained nirvana. The Hindus in Bengal, Odisha and Assam worship Kali, a consort of Lord Shiva who is also revered by several Tantric sects. Whatever the reason, the festivities honour the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance, as typified by the lamps (diya) that are lit across the country.
That fasting and feasting go hand-in-hand beautifully is something that is beyond argument. Diwali, unlike some Hindu festivals such as Mahashivaratri and Janmashtami, doesn’t demand of believers that they fast. There are no fixed rituals or meals associated with the day; in fact, the meet-and-greet — with friends, relatives and neighbours — necessitates the consumption of sweets and savouries. While most of north India gorges on sweets (laddoo, peda , barfi, jalebi, the works) and vegetarian dishes, some communities in Uttar Pradesh — Kayashths, for instance — won’t end the night without hot, fluffy pooris and mutton kaliya (a recipe inspired by the Mughals). Look east, and Kali Puja meals, including those served as bhog or prasad in many temples and community pandals, are considered incomplete without mutton.
Why are sweets and fried snacks such an integral part of this and other Indian festivals? Although sugar cane is not native to the country — it originated in Borneo thousands of years ago — Indians mastered the technique of converting sugar cane to other products. Today India is the world’s second largest producer of sugar (after Brazil) and the sugar industry provides employment to some six million people. Starting in the mid-19th century, sugar became the driving force behind the movement of Indians to the Caribbean.
Many Indian sweets are milk-based and thus provide a source of both protein and carbohydrates, especially important for the poor, who may not always be able to afford them. Nuts, raisins, saffron, cardamom, nutmeg, rosewater, and dried fruits can be added for flavour and nutritional benefits. Both sugar and milk are considered sattvic . And because many sweets (as well as snacks) are fried, they are considered pukka and can be eaten by everyone, regardless of caste. In the heydays of the joint family system, these sweets were made at home. Today, in many homes the sweets come in boxes from the neighbourhood shops.
As a food writer, I find Annakut (Govardhan Puja), a festival celebrated by many Vaishnavites on the day following Diwali, fascinating. It features what may be the world’s most elaborate religious feast — mountains upon mountains of vegetarian dishes, made and offered by the devotees. This festival commemorates an event in Krishna’s childhood when he persuaded the local cowherds to make their annual offerings of harvest grains and pulses to Mount Govardhan instead of the god Indra. Enraged, Indra sent a violent rainstorm to punish the people. Krishna lifted up Govardhan with his little finger and, for seven days and nights, held it aloft to shelter people from the rain. To commemorate this event, devotees in Vrindavan and other Vaishnava temples build a replica of Mount Govardhan and make offerings of dishes to it.
Last October I visited the Swaminarayan temple in Bartlett, a suburb of Chicago. What amazed me was how the dishes — all vegetarian, with no onion or garlic — combined the traditional and the local. The traditional sweets included many varieties of ghugra ( gujiya ), little fried pastries filled with khoya , coconut and sometimes dried fruits; laddoos, jalebis, different kinds of halwa, magaj (a kind of barfi made from coarse chickpea flour), and barfis in every colour of the rainbow. Often the sweets were piled up to make miniature replicas of Mount Govardhan. There was a profusion of savouries, including such traditional Gujarati snacks as handvo , batata shaak (potatoes and spinach), crispy vada, paatra and vegetable cutlets as well as colourful dishes of artfully arranged rice.
But many of the dishes had an America inspiration: giant pretzels and pizzas made of pastry, baguettes, cookies, apple turnovers, elaborately decorated cakes (some wishing Happy New Year in English or Gujarati), and row upon row of cupcakes that formed a vibrant border for the displays. Particularly impressive were a miniature temple made of dough and a marvellous peacock with feathers made of butternut squash and beets.
The same creativity is seen in the sweets made for Diwali by local sweet-makers. Jayant Sukhadia, proprietor of Sukhadia’s Sweets in Chicago (his family has been in the business in Surat for over 130 years) sells twice the normal amount of sweets and snacks at this time, including elaborate gift boxes. In addition to the traditional barfis (he makes 25 varieties, including pineapple and crunchy almond), halwas and laddoos, he has created cashew and pistachio tacos, a homage to Chicago’s Mexican restaurants, and a barfi shaped like a watermelon.
Diwali is observed with great fanfare throughout the diaspora, especially in countries where the ancestors came from northern India. Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra, author of Sugar and Spice: Sweets and Treats from around the World , recalls an abundance of sweets at Diwali in her native Guyana. Her favourite was mithai. Although in India this is a generic word for sweets, in Guyana it denotes a specific dish: crispy deep-fried sticks of dough, coated with sugar syrup, which sets to form a whitish sugary crust. (A similar dish called chenna gaja is found in Odisha). Another version is made from a richer dough containing sugar, butter and condensed milk — cut into chunks, the dough is deep-fried. The richest sweet — and, in her opinion, the best — is peda, which is made from canned evaporated milk instead of khoya , as in India.
Peggy Mohan, author of Jahajin , remembers a communal vegetarian meal in her home-town in Trinidad that featured jackfruit in coconut milk, parathas, dal poori, and home-made sweets. Her father would make mohanbhog , which in India would be called wholewheat halwa. The family would put together bags of sweets, which would be distributed to poor children who came to the gate — a Trinidadian version of Halloween that brings the convergence of cultures full circle.
Colleen Taylor Sen is the author of Curry: A Global History and Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, and is based in Chicago