Sahib’s impressions of Divali

Pran Nevile


British were greatly impressed by the hectic gaiety of the Indians at their fairs and festivals. We come across fascinating accounts of these joyous events by men and women authors. There is also colourful visual record of the events left by the British artists. The festivals imparted intensity to community life and inspired hilarity, feasting and social contacts on a large scale. People spent lavishly on these celebrations.

The Divali or Feast of Lamps, Rajpootana, C.1860 by William Simpson
The Divali or Feast of Lamps, Rajpootana, C.1860 by William Simpson

The Hindu festival of Divali or the ‘Feast of Lamps’ held the pride of place and special attraction for the Sahibs. Col Todd, famous for his early 19th century classic, Annals of Rajasthan, traces the origin of this ‘Grand Oriental festival’ to Central Asia. He writes that the Egyptians who furnished the Grecian pantheon, held these solemn festivals also called the ‘Feast of Lamps, in honour of Minerva at Lais and from there it radiated to remote China, the Nile, the Ganges and the shores of the Tigris.

In his account of Divali, one of the most brilliant fetes of Rajasthan, Col Todd states that “the Feast of Lamps is in honour of Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, the goddess of wealth, when every city, village and encampment exhibits a blaze of splendour. The potters’ wheels revolve for weeks before the festival, solely for the manufacture of lamps (diwa) and from the palace to the peasant’s hut, everyone supplies himself with them in proportion to his means, and arranges them according to his fancy.

Stuffs, pieces of gold, and sweetmeats are carried in trays and consecrated at the temple of Lakshmi. On this day, it is incumbent on every devotee of Lakshmi to try the chance of the dice, and from their success in the Divali, the prince, the chief, the merchant and the artisan, foretell the state of their coffers for the ensuing year”.

The Rev. Ward in his Religion of the Hindoos (1817) gives but a meagre account of the festival and admits that he cannot trace its origin. “In the month of Kartik“, he says, “the Hindoos suspend lamps in the air on bamboos in honour of the gods and in obedience to the Shastras — as the offering of lamps to particular gods is considered as an act of merit, so this offering to all the gods during the auspicious month of Kartik is supposed to procure many benefits to the giver”.

Divali on the ghats of Kanpur is made alive in a fascinating account (1830) by Fanny Parks. “On reaching the ghat“, she says, “I was quite delighted with the beauty of a scene resembling a fairyland… On every temple, on every ghat, and on the steps down to the river’s side, thousands of small lamps were placed from the foundation to the highest pinnacle, tracing the architecture in the lines of light. The evening was very dark, and the whole scene was reflected in the Ganges”.

She describes how the crowds of Hindu worshippers prostrated themselves before the idols of Lord Shiva and Ganesha and then poured Ganges water, rice, oil and flowers over the images of the gods. She also noted some women sending off little paper boats, each containing a lamp, which floating down the river, added to the beauty of the scene. The river was covered with fleets of these little lamps hurried along by the rapid stream. She was so thrilled by the sight that she recorded, “I was greatly pleased: so Eastern, so fairy-like a scene, I had not witnessed, since my arrival in India; nor could I have imagined that the dreary-looking station of Cawnpore contained so much of beauty”.

It was not uncommon for the Sahibs’ houses to be illuminated on Divali nights. The Godden sisters in their biographical work, Two under the Indian Sun, offer a vivid account of Divali celebrations in the early part of the 20th century. “We always kept Divali in our home and all day, we helped or hindered Guru, Govind and all other gardeners as they made the lamps ready and set them on the arch verandah railing and window ledge.

The Muslim servants joined in the excitement for this was a festival enjoyed by everyone; father told us that the Moghul Emperor Akbar had illuminated his palace on this night.”

Thrilled with their illuminated house, they would go up to the rooftop to catch a view of the bazaar, a ribbon of brightness, and enjoy the sight as the little pointed gold flames flickered and swayed gently, apparently of their own accord, and at once shone steadily again.

Divali continues to hold its pre-iminent position as the queen of Indian festivals.