Diwali, commonly referred to as the festival of lights, is India’s most celebrated festival of the year. For 2021 the holiday falls on November 4th. gLoBaL ERG members Suksham Barun, Baishakhi Bose, and Sankar Raju Narayanasamy, share what this holiday means for them and how they celebrate.

Can you explain Diwali to those that may not be familiar with the celebration – in your own words?

Above: Shri Ram Darbar

Below: Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha

Suksham: Diwali, commonly referred to as the festival of lights, is India’s most celebrated festival of the year. The word Diwali itself is derived from the Sanskrit word deepavali, meaning “row of lights.” It’s a time to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and good over evil.

The holiday is observed by more than a billion people from a variety of faiths across India and its diaspora. As it is observed by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists, each religion has its own historical narrative behind the significance of the holiday – but ultimately, they all represent the victory of good over evil.

In the northern parts of India, Diwali is related to Lord Rama and his triumph over Ravana. It is said that when Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya after being sent to exile for 14 years, the people decorated the entire village with lamps and also burst crackers to welcome Lord Rama. Diwali in North India starts with “Dhanteras” which is 2 days before the actual festival. On this day, people buy any metal item (gold, silver or copper utensils) which is considered auspicious.

A few notable traditions:

  • Light up streets, homes, and public places with brightly burning clay lamps

  • Exchange gifts and sweets with friends and family

  • Enjoy delicious feasts

  • Light and enjoy fireworks

  • Decorate entrances of homes with Rangoli, colorful designs made from rice or powder

  • Visiting the Temple to offer prayers to various Gods and Goddesses (for example special puja dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and good fortune)

Rangoli and diya decorations at Baishakhi's home in the US during Diwali celebrations

Baishakhi: Diwali is a celebration of victory of light over darkness. In my family, we celebrate Diwali by worshipping Goddess Kali, who symbolizes the victory of good over evil. During this celebration, we adorn our homes with flower garlands, “rangolis” (handmade color art from dry rice flour and colored sand). It is a time when we buy/make traditional sweets to share with friends and families. Our homes are decorated with many lamps and candles which symbolizes the celebration of light, prosperity and good health.

Sankar: Deepavali as we call in the South India is a grant Indian festival celebrated across the globe by millions of people to commemorate the triumph of goodness over evil. We take this as an opportunity to forget and forgive the wrongdoings of others and spread the value of unity, friendliness, and charity. This festival is filled with full of bright lights and deepams/oil lamps.

What does diwali mean to you?

Baishakhi's traditional homemade sweets (naru) made from coconut and jaggery.

Deepavali Kolam (photo credit: Sankar)

Suksham: Diwali has been my favorite festival since childhood and is very special to me. This festival reminds us that no matter how difficult things may seem, the forces of good will always be triumphant in the end. It is also a great time to clear our minds by leaving behind any negative baggage. Along with spending quality time with our loved ones, you get to enjoy a variety of sweets from different cultures such as laddus and rasgullas (my favorite). As a North Indian Hindu, it was an important time for us to honor our Gods and Goddesses.

Baishakhi: Growing up, Deepawali or Kali Puja to me was a time when my parents and I would visit my grandparents home in the countryside. It is an occasion when I would get to meet all my relatives and participate in the puja rituals. Diwali brings back fond memories of adorning our homes with tea-lights and candles, waking up early in the morning to pick flowers that my grandmother would later offer during the puja ceremony, dressing up in traditional attires and aroma of homemade traditional sweets.

Sankar: In our family, the occasion of Deepavali brings in a cheerful vibe which we share with friends, family and colleagues filled with dancing, singing, sweets and tasty Indian food. In a funny note, Deepavali festival gives a good opportunity to eat a whole lot of sweets without my mom questioning me.

Do you celebrate Diwali while in the US? Do you celebrate with your family, lab colleagues, or with a local community?

Suksham: Although it is different from celebrating back in India, I do still celebrate the festival in the US. I love decorating my house with lights, getting together with friends and family, wearing traditional Indian clothes, and eating delicious Indian meals and sweets. I also visit my local Hindu Temple to offer prayers to our Gods and Goddesses, such as Goddess Lakshmi (goddess of wealth and prosperity) and Lord Ganesha (god of wisdom).

Baishakhi: For the past four years in the US, I have celebrated Diwali with my husband and friends. Usually, the local temples host events which anyone can attend. I also love decorating my home with tea-lights, oil-lamps and flowers.

Sankar: Yes, I do. I have been celebrating Deepavali with my friends and colleagues, while the last year it went virtual due to the pandemic constraints.

Suksham celebrating Diwali with her husband and daughter

Do you have any suggestions of a person or a community to reach out to if you want to celebrate?

Suksham: Several cities in the Bay Area organize Diwali Melas (Fairs) to help celebrate the festival. It’s a great opportunity to experience the culture from sweets and clothes to henna tattoos and dance performances – for people of all communities! If anyone is interested, they can visit Diwali Celebrations at Alameda County Fairground, Pleasanton on Wednesday, Nov 3rd 6:30pm - 8:00pm.

Baishakhi: I would suggest keeping an eye on the events hosted by local student organizations and temples in the area. Sometimes, the events are hosted during the weekend before/after Diwali, if it happens to be on a weekday. Some organizations caters free traditional food, while others have music, “aarti” and “rangoli”.

Sankar: We have a spirituality dinner hosted on Oct 3rd 7.30-8.30 PM by the Stanford Hindu Student Association (HSA). For more details on the follow up events in accordance with 2021 Deepavali festival by student associations, you could reach out to me or HSA.

More Ways to Celebrate:

Thank you to our Contributors!

Suksham Barun is an administrator at Molecular Foundry, where she works closely with the Division Director and the Foundry Leadership Group. She has been with the Lab for almost 7 years. She is co-chair of the newly formed Operations Career Networking and Development EAA Group at the Lab and is a Professional Mentor for the TechWomen Program. She was born and raised in New Delhi, India and moved to the Bay Area in 1995.

Baishakhi Bose is a postdoctoral scholar at the Biological Systems and Engineering Division. She started working at LBNL this October and her work focuses on economic and environmental performance of producing bio-based recyclable materials. She is from Bangladesh and has been living in the US for the past 4 years.

Sankar Raju Narayanasamy is a PhD candidate in the Molecular Biophysics & Integrated Bioimaging Division. He has been with the lab for the past 3 years and has been working on interdisciplinary sample environment research for Cryo-electron microscopy, synchrotrons and X-ray Free Electron Lasers. Born in a South Indian family and living in various parts of India & Europe, Sankar brings in a diverse cultural vibrance to the lab.

Past Diwali Celebrations at the Lab

Reflecting on Diwali: Revisiting Previous Joint Genome Institute Celebrations

In light of the pandemic, the JGI's TBK Reddy, Supratim Mukherjee, and Mahathi Kandimalla find that the spirit of Diwali is more relevant than ever this year. Listen to their reflections over video footage and images from past JGI's Diwali celebrations (video credit: Massie Ballon, JGI)