November 18, 2012 by Louis Ritzinger
Festival season is now in full swing here in Lucknow, with Diwali (or Deepawali, as it is sometimes called) concluding last Tuesday and Muharram, the first month of the Muslim calender, beginning last Thursday. Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, marks the victory of good over evil through the commemoration of Rama’s return from exile to claim his rightful place as the king of Ayodhya (read the Ramayana, its pretty awesome) as well as the slaying of the demon Narakasura by Krishna. Hinduism being the beautiful set of paradoxical traditions that it is, I feel I should also point out that Krishna and Rama are actually one entity, and that Diwali is simultaneously a festival marking the harvest season and prosperity it brings. As such, businesses and households often consider it a particularly auspicious time to begin new business ventures, and Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth) and Ganesh (the remover of obstacles) also play prominent roles. On a deeper level, the festival can also be considered as a reminder of that everlasting light we carry within all of us – the essence that simultaneously makes up who we are as individuals and unites us as one and the same eternal being.
The first ten days of Muharram, meanwhile, are particularly important for Shia Muslims, who comprise a significant portion of the total Muslim population here in Lucknow. During this time the Battle of Karbala is recounted, in which Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and, according to Shia doctrine, his legitimate heir, was brutally killed along with his family and followers. Today, the bloody and tragic event is relived through a set of vivid, dramatic, and highly emotive traditions. Even after over 1300 years, it has lost none of its raw and mournful edge.
Needless to say, the two festivals present quite the stark comparison.
While Diwali is typically spread over five days, fireworks – which commemorate the victory of good over evil – and celebratory lights – which welcome the gods and goddesses into ones’ home – could be seen and heard several weeks before the festival’s climax on Tuesday, as well as for a few days afterwards. By Tuesday, much of the city, including the enormous apartment building a few blocks from our house, prominently visible from my housemate Ibrahim’s balcony, appeared to be draped in jewels of light.
That evening our friend Ali (who has recently given me permission to use his name) picked us up from our house to take part in the festivities by lighting fireworks from the roof of his house. Driving through the streets of the usually quiet city one felt as though the overwhelming buildup of energy and excitement, released in a constant stream of short pops and sparks against the night sky, would cause it to burst at the seams. The acrid smoke of millions of sparklers, poppers and fireworks lent a surreal, glowing aura to the night’s festivities as we gleefully lent our voices to the barrage of crackling lights surrounding us as far as our eyes could see. It was easily 2 am before the last fuse was lit.
As deviously fun as the fireworks were, however, I think what I will remember most about Diwali were the small clay oil lamps (Diya) that lined streets, driveways, and doorways during the festival. There was something so beautifully peaceful in the simple displays of small, solitary flames, defiantly casting their small bits of light against the darkness – gently coaxing the gods, or whoever might be lost along the path, home.
Some Diya I found on Google
While Muharram’s largest and most important event does not occur until the tenth day of the lunar month (Ashura), which marks the death of Hussain, Andrew (a second-time student at the Institute) and I ventured to the heart of the Old City’s Shia enclave, surrounding the Bara Imambara, to observe the procession (Azadari) marking the beginning of the month. The procession began inside the Bara Imambara, where a large crowd had gathered to observe the line of elaborately dressed horn and drum bands, flag-bearing children, multi-colored lanterns, camels, and (yes) elephants. Despite the solemness of the occasion, the blare of the horn bands (each playing their own distinct, circuitous pattern of notes and rhythms) and hum of the crowd, reverberating off the elaborate archways and walls of the Imambara, lent it something of a carnival-like feel. As the procession left the Imambara and entered the street, however, the impassioned tears of the mourners gathered on either side served as a powerful reminder of the tradition’s tragic roots, kept raw and exposed by the community’s continued persecution in much of the world.
As the procession lumbered slowly toward the Chhota Imambara, a group of young boys between the ages of 7-12 carefully approached Andrew and I where we sat along the side of the road. Like many here, they were curious as to the reasons for our presence, where we were from, and how we were enjoying the city. Prime representatives of the culture of hospitality their city is known for, we were soon presented with glasses of Chai and two small packets of sweets the boys seemed to be particularly fond of. When we noticed that the evident leader of the group had forgone his own candy to provide us with some, we quickly offered to share one packet between the two of us so that he could have one as well. He refused, bobbing his head from side to side in that quintessentially Indian manner and putting the palm of his hand out in the universal symbol of refusal. In that moment, it struck me that the calm knowing manner with which he looked us straight in the eyes seemed to reveal a glimpse of an adult in this small child’s body. This illusion, however, was soon betrayed by his uncontrollable excitement when, upon request, I produced an American 2 dollar bill from my wallet, which was quickly passed around the group.
Despite all the festivities here, it still is a little strange to be away from friends, family and loved ones as the American “festival season” approaches. I am, regardless of geographic location, always so thankful for you all.
Wishing you all a wonderful Thanksgiving from UP!
Note: I attempted to upload a video of fireworks on Diwali, but my WordPress app does not seem to allow me to do so. For anyone interested, you can see the video post on my Facebook page. Its pretty cool.