Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is the most popular of all the festivals from Southern Asia. Its name comes from the Sanskrit word dipavali, meaning "row of lights".
Diwali (also called Deepavali in southern India) is known as the Festival Of Lights because houses, shops and public places are decorated with small earthenware oil lamps called diyas (or divas, dipas, deepas or deeyas). These lamps, which are traditionally fuelled by ghee (clarified butter) or mustard oil, are placed in rows in windows, doors and outside buildings to decorate them.
The festival is very significant in Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism. It symbolises (among other things) the victory of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance... the lamps are a sign of celebration and hope for mankind. Fireworks and flowers are also associated with the festival.
The date of Diwali is set by the Hindu calendar and so it varies in the Western calendar. It usually falls in October or November, and extends over five days.
It's similar in many ways to the western celebration of the New Year, so the festival is a time for thoroughly spring-cleaning the home and for wearing new clothes. For many Indians the festival honours Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. They say prayers to the goddess for a successful year.
Also, like Christmas in the west, Diwali is very much a time for buying and exchanging gifts.
Two of the legends of Diwali show the triumph of good over evil, and tell of the destruction of two monsters that preyed on humanity...