Learning about Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights
This learning resource was created to promote understanding of this important Hindu festival. It reflects a long-standing partnership between Brighton Museum & Art Gallery and the Hindu Women’s Group, a partnership which is marked each year by a joint Diwali celebration.
Learning about Hinduism
Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions. It is a faith largely practised in India, but also all over the world. It is a rich, colourful, and lively religion. Hinduism is polytheistic, which means that Hindus can worship a number of different gods and goddesses, of which there are thousands.
Images of Hindu gods and goddesses can be found everywhere in India and religious practice forms an important part of daily life. There are temples and shrines on almost every corner to visit and pray to, posters and advertisements depicting popular deities, and many religious songs.
Hindus can choose the way they wish to practise Hinduism. Some people might pray every day and some not at all. When Hindus worship their chosen deity, it is called puja. At home, many Hindus dedicate a space for their own shrine, where they place statues or pictures of their favourite god or goddess. At the temple, offerings or prasada are laid before the god or goddess in the form of flower garlands, fruit or sweets.
Many Hindus are vegetarian, so they do not eat meat. An average meal might include many different types of food: rice, spiced vegetable dishes, yoghurt, pickles and flat round bread called chapatis. Sweets are often made for important religious festivals such as Diwali.
At festival time, important stories and teachings are told. These offer advice about the right way to live and form an integral part of everyday life. Hindus do not follow one particular holy book, but very old sacred texts called the Vedas and the Upanishads. Among these sacred books are two epic poems that tell the stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.
Ultimately, all Hindus believe in the same core principle of Hinduism: that when you die, your soul continues to live and that you are reborn into your next life. This is called Samsara. You could be reborn as a human or an animal depending on how good you have been in your present life. The effect of your actions in this life is called Karma. Hindus aspire to get to Moksha, the release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
Learning about Hindu Gods and Goddesses
Although Brahma is the supreme spirit, like God to Christians or Allah to Muslims, Hindus can choose to worship one or more deities from hundreds of gods and goddesses. Each deity is associated with particular symbols, characteristics or personalities, which make them easy to identify. Sometimes they are superhuman and have many arms or heads and special powers.
The Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva
A Hindu shrine will always include one of the Trimurti. These are the three most influential gods in Hinduism. Brahma is the creator of the universe, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the creator and destroyer of evil.
How to recognise them:
– Brahma is often shown with four or even five heads. He sometimes has four hands, which hold the four books of the Vedas.
– Vishnu is usually depicted with four arms holding a lotus flower, a conch shell, a club, and a discus. Sometimes he can be seen sleeping on the waves of the ocean, on a giant snake, Shesh-naga, or riding an eagle, Garuda.
– Shiva can be recognised by his long matted hair, the snakes around his neck, and his clothing of tiger skin. He carries a trident and has a third eye in his forehead. He can also be shown in the form of a sacred and powerful bull, Nandi.
Rama & Krishna
– Rama is the hero in the epic poem the Ramayana. He is brave and courageous, and a good King, warrior and husband.
– Krishna features in the epic Mahabharata. He is known for being playful and mischievous and was sent to the earth to combat evil.
Ganesh represents wisdom, strength and prosperity. He is often prayed to in times of difficulty as he is the remover of obstacles. A popular god who is recognisable by his elephant’s head, Ganesh is the son of Shiva and Parvati. Shiva was angry and cut his son’s head off in a rage. When Parvati heard of this she was very upset and Shiva promised to replace his head with the next living thing he saw, which was an elephant. Ganesh is the Lord of Beginnings and is an important God in welcoming the New Year at Diwali time.
Hanuman is Lord of the Monkeys and Rama’s most devoted follower. He symbolises intelligence and determination and plays a vital role in the Ramayana epic. Hanuman can fly, he carries a club, and is so strong that he can lift mountains.
– Parvati, the wife of Shiva, is worshipped in her gentle and beautiful, motherly aspect. But sometimes Hindus worship the more active form of her character, known as Durga, the warrior goddess. In a sacred text called the Devi Mahatmya, Durga rides a lion and fights fearsome battles with demons. The goddess Kali also appears on the battlefield, and is said to be very frightening, wearing a necklace of skulls.
– Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, is the goddess of love, luck and good fortune. She is often shown seated on a lotus flower with gold coins falling from her hands. At Diwali time Hindus pray to her to bring prosperity in the New Year.
This is a short version of this epic story which describes the meaning of Diwali.
– A long time ago in India, there was a prince called Rama.
– Rama had a wife called Sita.
– A wicked queen told lies about them to Rama’s father.
– He sent them away to the forest. They lived in the forest with all the other animals.
– A demon king called Ravana saw Sita and took her away.
– Rama could not find Sita.
– Hanuman and the monkeys knew where she was.
– Rama killed Ravana. He took Sita home.
– Rama was made king and everyone lit lights to show him they were happy.
What is Diwali?
Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights. The word diwali literally means ‘rows of lamps’. The festival is celebrated by Hindus all over the world and is one of the most important occasions in the Hindu lunar calendar. Diwali takes place in October/November and is the sign of a new year.
At Diwali time a very famous story called the Ramayana is told. In the story, the citizens of Ayodhaya become very sad when King Rama is exiled to the jungle for fourteen years. After this time, he returns and there is a joyous celebration. People line the streets with ‘divas’ or candles to show the way to his palace and paint Rangoli patterns with coloured powders outside their homes as a sign of welcome.
Throughout the world, Diwali continues to be celebrated in the same way today. It is full of light, colour, sweets, decorations, songs and dance.
During Diwali important traditions and rituals are performed, which are passed on to each new generation. People clean their homes from top to bottom, wear new clothes, exchange gifts, send cards, and say prayers or puja.
In the Hindu religion, there are many gods and goddesses. At Diwali time you might pray to the elephant-headed Ganesh, the ‘remover of obstacles’, or to the goddess Lakshmi for wealth and prosperity. Diwali is also an auspicious time for business people, as old account books are closed, and the new financial year begins.
Diwali is a very happy occasion and a time for celebration, taking away the darkness and bringing light into our lives.
This is how members of the Hindu Elders’ Group remember Diwali as children:
“There were fireworks, new clothes, we would meet our friends and have a party.” Pushpa.
“When I was a small child, my father took me to a shop to buy fireworks, and at home there was a cow for fresh milk. My mother would make puddings from the milk.” Karshan.
“My father was a goldsmith. At Diwali time, every year, he would give me a new bracelet, necklace or ring.” Urmilla.
What is Rangoli?
Rangoli is a traditional Indian art form often associated with Diwali. A Rangoli is a brightly coloured design created using different materials such as coloured powders, seeds and grains, flower petals, pencils, pens and paint.
In the Ramayana story the citizens welcome Rama back from his fourteen-year exile in the forest by painting Rangoli designs outside their homes. Hindu families continue to honour this tradition today. In India some people get up very early in the morning to create a Rangoli. Later it is swept away and a new picture is painted each day of the festival. Rangoli designs are both decorative and symbolise a warm welcome and good luck.
Candles and lamps are also placed outside the home in the hope that Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, will visit and bring good fortune and blessings to the family.
Rangoli designs vary from simple geometric patterns to highly intricate images. Everyone can appreciate the beauty of this art form and have a go at creating a Rangoli design.
Make a Hanuman mask
To make your own Hanuman mask you will need:
Dark brown card
Lighter brown card
Pink card (or paint)
Gold card (or white card and yellow paint)
Glitter, sequins and paint to decorate your mask
Elastic or string to tie your mask
- Draw two large circles, one on dark brown card, one on light brown card. Make sure the circles are wide enough to cover your face. Cut out both shapes.
- Place the light brown card circle half way over the dark brown card circle to make Hanuman’s face. Glue the pieces together.
- Make two eyeholes in the dark brown card circle.
- Draw two ear shapes on light brown card and cut them out.
- Draw a little round nose shape on pink card and cut it out (or you can use white card and paint it pink later).
- Draw a crown shape on gold card and cut it out (or you can use white card and paint it gold later).
- Now stick the ears, nose, and crown onto your mask.
- Now its time to decorate your mask!
- Paint a big curved smile from edge to edge across the light brown circle.
- If you used white card, paint your pink nose and yellow crown.
- Decorate your crown and mask with glitter, sequins and paint.
- Make two small holes at either side of the top circle and thread with some elastic or string.
- Now you can wear your Hanuman mask, and be King of the Monkeys!
Create a Ramayana shadow puppet performance
To make a shadow puppet you will need:
On black card, draw your character in profile (as if you’re looking at them from the side). Make sure that your characters are about the same size and that they will fit into your theatre. Carefully cut your character out.
If you wish, you can give your character separate arms and legs. Use split pins to join them to the body so that they can be moved into different positions.
Use a piece of garden cane to make a rod for your puppet by sellotaping it to the back of the puppet.
Try some Indian Recipes
Try your hand at making some Indian food for Diwali by following these recipes, created by ‘Karuna’s Kitchen’, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. These recipes are not intended for children to make.
Diwali and Brighton Museum
In 1997 Green Centre staff worked in partnership with members of Brighton and Hove’s Gujarati community on an exhibition and series of events to mark the 50th anniversary of India’s Independence. The exhibition, India 50, included objects and textiles loaned by members of the community.
In 2002 the partnership was further developed through the creation of a Hindu shrine in the James Green Gallery of World Art, part of a museum redevelopment project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Every year the importance of the relationship between the Museum and the Gujarati community is reaffirmed in a joint celebration to mark Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights.
A Hindu Shrine at Brighton Museum
A glittering Hindu shrine in the James Green Gallery of World Art at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery reflects a long-standing partnership between the Museum and members of Brighton and Hove’s Gujarati community.
The shrine came out of discussion with community members around a series of events and exhibition organised in 1997 to mark the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. A museum redevelopment project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund provided the opportunity to work together on the creation of a shrine for the new gallery.
The World Art collection includes some fine examples of bronze and alabaster Hindu deity figures as well as a nineteenth century shrine. Members of the Hindu community advised on the selection and positioning of the deity figures within the shrine and made decorations for the shrine. They also assisted museum staff in writing a booklet to accompany the display.
In 2002 the shrine was formally installed with a blessing ceremony led by a Brahmin priest. Over 150 people of different faiths attended to mark the event with puja, food, music and dance. The shrine remains on permanent display.
The Shrine Blessing Ceremony (photographs by Tony Tree)
Since 1997 Museum staff and members of the Hindu Women’s Group have jointly organised an annual event to mark Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights. The events have varied in size but often include a Rangoli competition. Members of the community make elaborate and colourful Rangoli designs, which are judged against a number of categories.
In 2003 a Diwali event was held at the Friends Meeting House. The event included storytelling, sari-wearing demonstrations, Rangoli workshops, henna tattooing, museum object handling, music, dancing and food. The day event and series of related events at Brighton Museum were supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Tales from Ramayana
This special event held at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery was one of a series that sought to promote understanding of Diwali and the important Hindu epic the Ramayana. The event was targeted at children and families and included storytelling, face painting, mask making and shadow puppet making.
The events formed part of a project called ‘Turn on the Lights’ which was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Photographs were taken by James Pike.
Brighton Museum & Art Gallery is grateful for the support of the following in creating this resource:
Heritage Lottery Fund
The Khagram family
Members of the Hindu Women’s Group
Members of the Hindu Elders’ Group
The James Green Charitable Trust