We can barely squeeze through the narrow streets filled with festively dressed, colourful crowd of people. Always lively Indian shops are even more busy than usual.
“No, no. Five is not enough. It must cover the whole arm”, the owner of the shop fixes her headscarf and with an apparent expertise in a topic continues the conversation, “ The more bangles, the happier the bride. A consent in marriage will last until the last bangle breaks”.
The customer leaves the store with a bag overflowing with sparkling, colourful glass bracelets. Behind her, the merchant lady does not waste time – a new client, a new offer.
“Do you like it? Then, please, please sit down. My daughter will paint the same pattern. The quality of our henna is the best, lasts for a very long time”, without stopping to advertise her services she pulls a tiny chair from underneath a table, offering it to a shyly protesting woman, “So? What does it matter that German? Please, give me your hand and we will transform it into a real piece of art”.
Shelves of neighbouring stands are lined with rows of figurines depicting Hindu deities. From the heights of their cabinets, they follow our movements with beady eyes. In the next shop, crammed into the wooden frames, painted prophets raise their hands in a blessing gesture. Among them – a photo of Michael Jackson.
A nearby restaurant seduces with mouthwatering scents. Inside and outside crowds of people tightly fill aluminium tables. As if by magic one more table appears before us. Over-busy waiter-magician makes sure that we have enough space and presents us with a menu. Waiting for our order we are looking at the colourful pageant of celebrating people.
“Chicken curry for you sir and coconut milk for the lady”.
I greedily start to drink wonderfully refreshing, sour-sweet liquid through a straw placed in a cut end of the fruit. Andrzej is trying to resist a fantastic scent of coconut-milk curry and waits for rice to accompany the chicken.
“Rice? But it was not in order. Oh no, it is not included, you need to order it separately, sir. And I am really sorry but we do not have beers. I am pretty sure you will be able to get it on the street market, though. It is just around the corner”.
The whole street is covered with plastic chairs and tables. All around, small, portable food stalls offer snacks and deep fried, sweet cakes still glistening with cooking oil. The scent of cinnamon and cumin fills the air. Each of the stalls is surrounded by an impressive number of customers.
“Beer? Yes, of course! Which one? The most popular?” a bearded man reaches over to a styrofoam box filled with ice. From a makeshift refrigerator he fishes out a 0.5l can and for three SGD we become the proud owners of an alcoholic beverage with an intriguing name ‘Knock Out’.
From the first sight, it is obvious that this evening’s main theme is light. Everywhere we look, there are lampions of all shapes, sizes, and colours: hanging, standing, connected into long strings, formed into various shapes. Some filled with oil, some tech advanced. But their elaborate structure fades in comparison to a splendour of those adorning the main street of Little India. The massive, extraordinary gates made of lampions hover over cars driving below. Recent rain converts a street surface into a mirror. It multiplies shiny and hypnotic cacophony of the colours. We follow this magic carpet of light to the main stage. The sky explodes with thousands of colours. Accompanied by the sounds of Bollywood music starts a culmination of today’s celebration – a massive fireworks display.
Deepavali – Festival of Light
It is a Hindu festival celebrated between mid-October and mid-November (falls at New Moon night). Traditionally it is celebrated with small, lit clay lamps filled with oil. They are a symbol of victory of light over darkness, good over evil. In common use are also firecrackers, which are used to repel evil spirits.
Deepavali celebrates the light that everyone carries within oneself. According to an axis of Hindu belief that there is a force that is ultimately pure, infinite and eternally good – Atman. The Light refers not only to the victory of good over evil but also to knowledge and wisdom that overcomes ignorance. With this victory comes enlightenment and awareness that everything that exists is one. Deepavali is a celebration of the birth of inner light that brings this realisation.
Deepavali lasts five days. Each day corresponds to a different history associated with the main feast.
Day I: Dhanteras – a celebration of the birth of Dhanvantari (the god of health) and Lakshmi (goddess of wealth and prosperity). This is a day when trade in gold and jewels thrives. Hindu businessmen pick it as the beginning of their business year.
Day II: Naraka Chaturdashi – on this day Krishna (incarnation of Vishnu), killed the demon Narakasura. Hindus, before dawn, take a bath in water mixed with fragrant oils which is considered an equivalent to taking a bath in holy waters of the Ganges. Homemade sweets are baked in preparation for the main day of celebrations.
Day III: Lakshmi Puja – the most important day of Deepavali. This day is for Ganesh – god of successful start and Lakshmi – the goddess of prosperity. Olive lamps are placed in the windows. Their light invites the goddess to step into the households. It is also a celebration of mothers. The family thanks them for a year-round hard work and taking care of the family.
Day IV: Padua – dedicated to a celebration of love and devotion in marriage. On that day, husbands present their wives with elaborated gifts.
Day V: Bhaiya Dooji – celebration of a loving bond between siblings. Women gather together for a common prayer in the intention of their brothers. Later on, siblings are joined together over a festive dinner sharing conversations and exchanging gifts.
Know before you go
Deepavali experience in Little India is something really unique and worth considering. You need to keep in mind however that there will be an immense mass of people flooding the streets during this festival. Definitely not for someone who does not feel too comfortable in crowded areas. An alternative option is to visit Little India 2-3 days before the celebrations. The streets are already beautifully adorned, but still comfortable empty.
In Singapore, it is the best to experience Deepavali in the Little India district – home of the largest Indian community in the country. Up close you will be able to look at and take part in the traditional celebration of this joyous festival.
It is very easy to get to Little India as an MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) station is placed in a very heart of the district.
Between mid-October and mid-November. Every year celebration falls on a different date and for example, in 2015 it was celebrated on 10th of November, in 2016 falls on 29th of October, and so on.
There are no charges involved in celebrating Deepavali. You just need to appear at Little India and sink in the festive atmosphere. The only expenses you need to cover would be for delicious food, sweet treats, souvenirs and occasional hand henna. In food courts, prices of a dish consisting of rice, drink (non-alcoholic) and meat in curry sauce starts from 7SGD/5USD. A similar set available in restaurants is a bit pricier (15-35SGD/11-26USD). Street stalls for their sweet treats will charge from 2SGD/1.50USD. The price of souvenirs depends on their quality. In very typical souvenir shops selling magnets, bottle openers, coasters, etc. prices start from 5SGD/4USD. In stores offering sari, pashminas, and clothes of a better grade prices range from tens to hundreds of Singapore dollars.