(CNN) — Diwali, one of India‘s most important festivals, commenced Thursday, with the main festivities due to take place on Saturday, November 13.
Each year, Hindus, Sikhs and Jains across the world celebrate Diwali. The festival symbolizes new beginnings and the triumph of good over evil, and light over darkness.
Festivities usually lasts for five days, and include gathering with family members, sharing tasty food, watching spectacular fireworks and visiting temples.
Streets, houses, shops and public buildings are decorated with small oil lamps made from clay called “diyas,” illuminating them with a warm, festive glow.
This part of the festival acknowledges the Hindu god Lord Rama and the legend of his return to his kingdom after fourteen years in exile. Light symbolizes purity, good luck and power.
Hindus in cities and villages across the world also believe that during Diwali the Hindu goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, will visit their homes if they are illuminated, clean and beautifully decorated.
Lukshmi puja, which involves a prayer ritual, is also a significant part of Hindu religion. It’s a time to give thanks and pray for a good harvest.
But as the coronavirus pandemic continues to halt plans for mass gatherings and many countries remain in lockdown, this year’s Diwali will be very different for many.
Experts have also warned that gathering in groups to celebrate Diwali could lead coronavirus cases to rise, especially in India’s capital where infections are already surging, exacerbated by India entering its annual air pollution season.
Here’s how the festival is being celebrated across the world in 2020.
‘It feels very different’
Rahi Chadda, a model, actor and fashion influencer based in London, tells CNN Travel that Covid and the current English lockdown forced him to cancel plans for his annual Diwali dinner parties, which usually cater to around thirty of his friends and family.
England is currently in the midst of a national lockdown that bans household mixing, so Chadda will just be cooking for his parents this year.
“Places of worship are closed and the tradition of going to the temple isn’t really happening this year,” he explains.
Chadda usually enjoys the process of buying fireworks and decorating his home in the lead-up to Diwali.
“This year you don’t feel the motivation to do it because it is a pandemic and it feels very different,” he says.
The context of Covid also adds a different dynamic to the celebrations, adds Chadda.
“We might be having a happy and safe Diwali in our homes but there are people out there that might have just recently lost a loved one due to coronavirus so it might not be the happiest Diwali for them,” he says.
As an influencer, Chadda is aware he has a responsibility to celebrate Diwali safely and mindfully, as his 800,000+ Instagram followers are watching.
But he is grateful to have the opportunity to celebrate, even if it’s more low-key this year.
“I’m healthy and my loved ones are around me. It just makes you realize that all those years of festivities and celebrations, to an extent, you end up taking it for granted. We just have to appreciate and celebrate the occasion for what it is, and the pandemic can’t kill your vibe,” he adds.
According to research by global digital payments company WorldRemit, 45% of the UK’s South Asian community had been hoping to travel abroad to visit family and friends this weekend, until travel restrictions imposed by the second coronavirus wave in the country meant people needed to look closer to home.
Ajay Devanarayanan, 22, a student from Devon, England, tells CNN Travel that in lieu of meeting and celebrating together, his family have been sharing hopeful, thoughtful messages via social media group chats.
Devanarayanan says conversations have revolved around how the true essence of Diwali is finding positivity in the moment, and being grateful for health and happiness. Large-scale celebrations aren’t necessary; what’s important is cherishing time spent with those close to you.
For those celebrating Diwali, social media and video calls are a crucial way of allowing people to connect with their loved ones in a Covid-safe way.
“We’ll all be getting dressed up as normal but will hop onto a giant zoom call to do our prayers, light our candles/diyas together,” Kiran Hothi and Sonam Kaur, who run the media platform NotYourWife, which amplifies and celebrates the voices of South Asian women across Britain, tell CNN Travel by email.
“We are also hosting an online quiz for our family and friends. For the elder members of our family, we have ensured they are in support bubbles or that we gave them some serious Zoom training pre-lockdown.”
‘It brought us closer as a family’
Across the pond in the US, 26-year-old Neha Sharma, a dancer based in Los Angeles, California, says she’ll miss the huge parties and firecrackers that usually characterize her family’s Diwali celebrations, but she’s finding the joy in her at-home festivities.
“I’m going to be celebrating the festival of lights at home by dressing up in traditional Indian clothes, making candles, desserts and decorating the house! And of course FaceTime/Zoom the family.”
Fellow LA resident Saurav Dutt has got creative with his video call festivities.
Family members are sending one another recipes in advance, he says, and they’ll unveil their efforts during the call.
“We’re also organizing a special singing game called Antakshari, where you’re in teams, as well as a Bollywood quiz which I’ve written,” says Dutt, who is a journalist and author.
“That works surprisingly well on Zoom; the kids in the families have also created rangoli drawings which will be judged on the call. We’re also connecting into one particular family in India who will be having fireworks in their large garden.”
In Canada, Smita Galbraith, who works as a citizen representative in British Columbia says she sees Diwali as the beginning of the new year and a time for a fresh start. This year is no different on that front, but in other ways the celebrations feel different.
“Plans have definitely changed,” she tells CNN Travel. “We typically would celebrate with having sweets and savory snacks shared between our family and friends. We go to our friends’ house and light sparklers and also my kids and I go to the temple, and also light up diyas and make some fun rangoli designs outside our house.”
This year Galbraith has just been celebrating with her immediate family. She’s been making her own snacks and sweets, and teaching her daughter how to make them.
This come with its own delights.
“My friends have been sharing videos/pictures on WhatsApp with each other and we are all inspiring each other to create new foods. We will also use sparklers in our backyard and light diyas around our house!”
For fellow Canadian Amal Dave, who works at the Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto, Diwali has always started with cleaning his home.
“I wouldn’t usually use the terms ‘celebrating’ and ‘cleaning’ in the same sentence, but with Diwali it symbolizes new beginnings and a fresh start,” he says.
This year, he’s also embracing video calls and virtual greetings.
“We would usually go out to the temple here for the Diwali puja, but that was not possible due to the current situations,” he says. “Instead, my mom did puja at home and celebrated virtually with the rest of our family.
For Dave, previous Diwalis have also involved visiting relatives in India and enjoying big celebrations. But he says some of the smaller scale substitutions have been equally as special.
His family usually buy and enjoy lots of sweet treats, but this year they switched to making the delicacies at home.
“[It] proved to be an even better experience,” says Dave. “It brought us closer as a family as we got to spend more time with each other.”