DIWALI – INDIA’S GREAT UNIFIER

Celebrated for millenniums, Diwali is that time of the year when we can all choose to turn a new leaf and begin a new year without hatred and prejudice, a fact that resonates even more when examining centuries-old Mughal Miniatures that portrayed the festival being a part of their court and life. You & I takes a look at this unique phenomenon.

On the cusp of Diwali, it is only apt to revisit the origins of the Festival of Lights – and while it is easy to wax eloquent about the return of Lord Rama and the religious significance the celebrations have, it is perhaps a tad bit more challenging when examining the impact Diwali has had on modern Indian culture and customs, regardless of faith. Such has been the impact of Diwali on the Indian way of life that in the past, we have witnessed foreign invaders, the British and even Mughal Rulers adopt it into their list of yearly celebrations. 

This fact is a poignant one, given the state of divide the country is currently experiencing. While political paths are forever meandering, India has for almost the better part of a millennium, remained a diverse landscape of faiths and religious beliefs. Hindus have for centuries celebrated Eid and Christmas along with their Muslim and Christian brethren, and the same has been seen for Hindu festivities across the board. Diwali, however, is probably the most important such occasion, blurring community lines and bringing together people of all faiths no matter what their political bent might be at any given point of time. 

One of the most blatant pieces of evidence we have in support of the above is the existence of hundreds, if not thousands, of miniature paintings from across India depicting the celebration of the Festival of Lights by the Mughal court. Originating from the Fergana Valley, located between present-day Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the Mughals found themselves morphing and adapting to Indian ways, often to seek legitimacy in their rule over a land, which was intrinsically alien to them. When they began marrying into the Rajput families of the North, their new brides brought with them a whole different set of customs and traditions, often influencing future rulers, who, though brought up in the Mughal ways, also began appreciating the influx of local flavours into their courts. 

These miniatures can now be found all over the world, from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to the Met in New York. Mentions of Diwali have been found in both the Ain-I-Akbari and the Jehangirnama. The bursting of fireworks became a part of the Mughal court, with chronicles revealing their use in Shab-e-Barat, the Muslim night of vigil and atonement and the Jashn-e-Chiraghan or Festival of Lights. Author of The Foundations of the Composite Culture in India, Malik Mohamed states that during the festival a Puja Durbar was held in the Mughal courts, where cows with garlands were brought in by Brahmin priests. The Mughals also observed the lighting of the Akash Diya, a burning light atop a pole, in commemoration of the God’s up in the sky, all this while conducting a string of feasts that coincided with the Hindu celebrations. 

Though originally from China, fireworks found their way into Indian life and became a symbol of celebration. A miniature showing the wedding of Dara Shikoh, Shah Jahan’s eldest son, from the National Museum in Delhi, clearly depicts the use of fireworks in the background, welcoming the new groom to the bride’s side. This practice, which was earlier reserved for celebrating Diwali, re-enacting the return of Lord Rama, had now found its way into Mughal tradition, something that lasted till their dynasty was in control of the throne before being removed by the British. 

While most of these miniatures depict the ladies of the court playing with Phooljadis, other works have portrayed Anaars, rockets bursting in the skies and even the famous Chakris. Often the Mughals used Chakris to break away elephants in fights which were only scared of the firework and couldn’t be controlled by any other means. The habit of using loud fireworks hadn’t yet caught on, and can probably be attributed to modern times where the evolution of fireworks took a louder turn. 

For all their detractors, fireworks are thus an intrinsic part of the celebration of Diwali. Yes, they pollute, cause a lot of noise and brouhaha, disturbing the sick and the elderly, small pets, and creating a general ruckus to normal day life, but if not for a few days, when else can we dip back into our past and relive the traditions that brought together two warring faiths so effortlessly? In this, Diwali is singularly that time of the year when it can be said, we wash away our past sins and enter a new year. 

While the Diwali this year will certainly be a more subdued one, when compared to that of previous years, thanks mainly due to the pandemic, one can certainly say that the need for it couldn’t be more paramount, especially in these dire times. Illuminating the night, purifying ills and celebrating the win of good over evil… can there be a more just depiction of fighting against our collective nemesis in these days? 

It was probably with those thoughts in his head that legendary artist MF Husain decided to include the celebration of Diwali in a triptych commissioned by steel baron LN Mittal’s wife, Usha Mittal when portraying India in all its myriad ways. Husain, no stranger to controversy, had lived a life of exile towards his end, hounded out of the country of his birth in a much-hyped attack by extremists wanting to point the finger at his depiction of Hindu God’s in his paintings. Today, that same work has been showcased by the V&A museum, celebrating the artist’s versatility and affinity for Hindu culture, even though Husain himself was a practising Muslim. 

This strange universal acceptance of Diwali makes it a unique time of the year, perhaps even an opportunity to introspect, re-examine our priorities and start afresh. The TV channels, infighting politicians and vested religious clerics have already made living life right now a rigorous ordeal. One look at the news in any direction or platform and it’s clear that there is a strong urge to divide, be it for political gain, to change the government or create unrest where there isn’t any. Use the festival that has brought us all together for centuries to turn a new leaf and think for yourself, without the hindrance of the noise pollution and ideological bombardment being sent your way by those wanting to profit from division and disunity. Here’s wishing you all a very Happy Diwali!      -- Vishwaveer