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What is the festival of lights and how is it celebrated?

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Diwali’s five-day celebration has become a national festival marked by most Indians regardless of faith, with Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs also observing.

Beginning on Thursday, more than a billion people around the world will began the annual celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights that many consider to be the start of the new year.

Typically, the festival is marked by celebrations both at home and in large community gatherings by people of many faiths in both India and the diaspora. In recent years, celebrations have become increasingly mainstream in America with large events in Disneyland and Times Square as well as convention centers across the country.

This year, Diwali festivities will likely revert back to more intimate family gatherings coupled with online observances as both countries grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.

India, which has reported more than 8.6 million COVID-19 cases and more than 127,000 deaths, is second only to the United States which has more than 10.2 million cases and nearly 240,000 deaths, according to data from John Hopkins University

India’s Health Ministry has attributed a recent surge in New Delhi to the festival season. Officials warned that the situation can worsen due to people crowding markets for festival shopping.

Here’s what you need to know about Diwali and how celebrations will look different this year:

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What is Diwali?

The name Diwali, or Deepavali, comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “rows of lighted lamps,” according to Shereen Bhalla, the director of education at the Hindu American Foundation. There are several legends connected to Diwali, according to Bhalla.

Some believe the day celebrates the return of King Rama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and his wife Queen Sita, an avatar of goddess Lakshmi, to Ayodhya after he 14 years in exile which residents celebrated by lighting rows of clay lamps. Some believe Diwali falls on the birthday of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and the day she married Vishnu. 

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Others believe Diwali celebrates the day Lord Krishna, another avatar of Vishnu, defeated Prince Narakasura and brought peace to earth.In western India, the festival marks the day Vishnu, one of the main gods of the Hindu trinity, sent the demon King Bali to rule the nether world.

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Although the festival originated with Hindus, Diwali is celebrated by most Indians of all faiths including Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs.

In Jainism, it marks the nirvana or spiritual awakening of Mahavira, according to the HAF. For Sikhs, it celebrates the day a major guru was freed from imprisonment. Buddhists believe Diwali as is the day the Indian Emperor Ashoka accepted Buddhism as his faith. 

When is it this year?

Bhalla said the dates change each year based on the Hindu lunar calendar, but typically happens in October and November. Major celebrations occur on the third day of the five-day long festival which this year falls on Nov. 14. 

How is Diwali celebrated?

The celebration lasts five days, during which candles, firecrackers and clay lamps known as diyas are lit to signify the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil, Bhalla said. If you want to greet someone who is celebrating you can say “happy Diwali” or “saal mubarak” which means “Happy New Year.”

People will also decorate with rangolis, intricate patterns made from colored powder, rice or flowers, on the floor of their homes. Food is also a major part of the holiday, with traditional sweets and savory items eaten.

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Many cities including New York and San Antonio have in recent years hosted massive celebrations that drew thousands. The White House has had Diwali celebrations for years.

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Diwali is also considered for some to be the start of the new year, so many people purchase new clothes and clean out their homes. Typically, Hindus will also go to a temple to say a puja, or prayer to the god Ganesh or Lakshmi. Bhalla said the holiday is also a time for people to make charitable contributions, provide service to those in need.

“With Diwali there is a lot of emphasis on engaging in service, what we call seva, the Sanskrit word for service,” Bhalla said. “Another big word in Sanskrit which is danya charitable giving.”

The day after Diwali is a time to exchange gifts, well wishes and check in with family and friends while the final day of the festival is meant for siblings to celebrate together, according to Bhalla.

“That’s when we take the time to be grateful and be really aware of everything we’ve been lucky to have,” she said.

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USA TODAY’s Hadley Malcolm learns how to make traditional Diwali dishes with James Beard Award-winning chef Vikram Sunderam of Washington, D.C.’s Rasika.

What will celebrations look like amid the coronavirus pandemic?

Bhalla said this year people likely will not gather for the kind of large celebrations seen in the past, but many will find creative ways to honor the holiday amid the pandemic. She said some temples may offer online prayer sessions or speeches and many are hosting celebrations or sharing meals over Zoom.

Some of the larger celebrations have been canceled, while others moved online. In Times Square, a diya will be lit followed by a greetings from the Prime Minister of India Narender Modi and a virtual concert, according to a statement from organizers. In San Antonio, participants will be able to join a livestream of events including yoga, cooking tutorials, diya lighting and a dance party. 

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Bhalla said she plans to have a small gathering with others in her “bubble” and make a decadent dessert called burfi which features cashews.

“We recognized and think it’s important people celebrate with small groups,” she said. “We don’t have to have a large celebration or go to the Hindu temple to celebrate Diwali…It is really what’s in your heart.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg

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