Dodging Fireworks at Diwali, India’s Festival of Lights

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Dodging Fireworks at Diwali, Indias Festival of Lights

It’s the last night of Diwali in the sacred town of Pushkar. Most of the celebrations will take place indoors as families gather together to feast and share sweets — it’s a private holiday. But outside their homes, gunpowder owns the night.

Diwali is one of the most important festivals of the year throughout India and lasts for five days. The name comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “row of lights”, a reference to the many small candles –signifying the triumph of good over evil– that are placed at religious shrines by the devout.

Pushkar is lit up tonight, with multicolored strings of lights hanging from shop fronts and draped across doorways. Fireworks have been exploding all over town for days and tonight will be the climax — everyone I’ve has cheerfully informed me that it will be loud and raucous.

I’m sitting at a tiny outdoor cafe sipping a coke and watching the crowds on the busy main street as the sun goes down. I had ordered a forbidden beer –always served surreptitiously in coffee cups to avoid offending the residents of this holy town– but quickly realize that an ancient shrine sits right next to me, just ten feet away and cancel the order rather than be disrespectful to the stream of people who’ve come to pray and make offerings.

The shrine is a small, painted cubbyhole cut into a concrete wall with an iron grating — inside are two small statues, so weathered and worn by time that they look to my eye to be nothing more than rocks. It’s early and already several dozen small flickering candles surround the base of the figures. Burning incense fills the air.

A steady procession of women pass by carrying stainless steel trays of oil candles in small red clay saucers

A steady procession of women pass by carrying stainless steel trays of oil candles in small red clay saucers, awaiting their turn at the shrine. Wearing new clothes is one of the traditions of Diwali and the fabric shops have been packed for days with dozens of women crowding the open store fronts and digging through piles of ornate, glittering fabric. Tonight they’re wearing their new finery for the first time and it’s a sight to behold.

They pass by in twos or threes, young and old, wearing a thousand different bright colors — no earth tones tonight. Mothers often escort their daughters, who carry the candles with solemn, proud faces. Their saris are all trimmed in intricately-patterned gold or silver or studded with rhinestones and small mirrors. They look like peacocks, dipped in diamonds.

The cracker shop across the street is doing a brisk business — half of the shelves are bare and men and boys are picking through the remains. Fire crackers seem to be the preferred choice. I’d read in the newspaper earlier that a new cracker is available this year that is 50% stronger than anything available before. I’ve heard and felt these in action and they are truly spectacular — they sound like a car bomb going off and will scare the hell out of you if you’re within 100 feet.

The article also lamented that the ‘eco-friendly’ firework haven’t seemed to have caught on. It contains very little explosive and instead of making noise or shooting sparks, it creates a small cloud of smoke and disperses “sparkling confetti”. Somehow I’m not surprised by the anemic sales. Judging from the kids here, it’s all about the bang.

It’s dark now and I head back to the hotel to watch the show from their rooftop. Along the way, I spot three giggling young boys looking at me and whispering as they fumble with something unseen. My hard stare lets them know that they’ve been busted and they sheepishly smile back and wave, leaving me unmolested as I pass. Other tourists aren’t so lucky, having crackers thrown at their feet and walking away with ringing ears.

A block onward, others are lighting crackers under an inverted steel salad bowl that’s about a foot and a half in diameter. When the cracker goes off, it blows the bowl at least twenty feet in the air, to the delight of the kids gathered around. The thought of six-year-old boys playing with these things makes me cringe and I can only hope they all make it through the night with their digits intact.

Dodging Fireworks at Diwali, India's Festival of Lights

The view from the rooftop is perfect for a night like this — I can see the lake and the many temples that surround it. People are lighting Roman candles and rockets from their rooftop terraces, kids are dancing about with sparklers. Every minute or so, someone will set off one of the really big crackers and I can feel it reverberate in my chest and in the soles of my feet. A block away, someone else will take that as a challenge and set off two or three at the same time. It’s a war zone.

And Pushkar itself is a perfect urban environment for such a night. It’s crammed full with 3-4 story buildings that line narrow streets — the echoes are incredible. Flying fireworks are no problem, as the entire town is built of concrete. The only wood in town is in the form of doors and furniture and all roads are asphalt or dirt. Fire isn’t really a worry — there’s nothing to burn.

I’m reminded how fireworks were so often a disappointment when I was a kid.

Watching the skies, I’m reminded how fireworks were so often a disappointment when I was a kid — at least, the fireworks my family could afford certainly were. It’s the same here, with tiny rockets shooting into the air, trailing sparks and then… nothing. They fizzle and die.

Another common variety shoots high into the air and –just as you think it’s about to explode in a big burst– instead shoots out a single thin spark at a ninety degree angle, essentially creating a big upside-down check mark. I’m guessing that the packaging suggests otherwise — “Big Check Mark in the Sky” doesn’t sound like terribly compelling marketing copy. Instead, all of the packages feature photos of young Indian women in low-cut tops and sport names like “Red Dragon” and “Fireball”.

But I soon realize that the Universal Law of Fireworks applies here, just as at home: you fire off the cheap stuff first. The skies are gradually filled with showy bursts of red, green and gold as people start to break into the real goods. The air is filled with smoke and I can’t escape the smell of gunpowder. I hate to think what all of this is doing to my lungs, so I light a cigarette to take my mind off it. It seems to help.

The main difference between Diwali and any other fireworks show I’ve experienced before is that this just goes on and on. Unlike New Years Eve, where everyone waits for midnight to go crazy, this just continues without stop, from sundown to midnight. It really does sound like a war zone, as if the city is being invaded, pounded by artillery. Car bombs go off every thirty seconds and strings of fire-crackers roar for minutes at a time. It’s the happiest war ever.

By eleven o’clock, things start slowing down and by midnight everything is quiet — some people have to work the following day. And others have to get up at 6:00am so they can set off a car bomb right outside my room window.

Thanks for that. Happy Diwali.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Ted Beatie November 11, 2010 at 8:50 pm

I’m sure not as impressive as Pushkar, but we saw Diwali celebrations in the Little Indias of Singapore and Penang, and the lights in the streets and shops were no less bright. No fireworks tho!
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lakshmi November 11, 2010 at 8:57 pm

Happy Deepavali to you..im yet to go to Pushkar although Ive been to other parts of Rajasthan..suggest you try some of the sweets if you ever get a chance to do so
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wes November 12, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Man, if I try anymore sweets I’m going to have to buy new pants ;)

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Nisha November 11, 2010 at 9:14 pm

I hope it was a different experience for you. The ‘small red clay saucers’ are called ‘diya’. :-)
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wes November 12, 2010 at 6:46 pm

Ooh! Thanks for that, Nisha :)

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Kimberly November 14, 2010 at 12:22 am

The first picture is wonderful! The shrine looks holy=)

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Andi November 15, 2010 at 12:01 am

A car bomb!?!

I would love to be in India for this festival, sounds amazing!!!
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wes November 15, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Well, not a real one. But it certainly sounded like it.

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My-Tien November 15, 2010 at 10:35 am

I think they just talked about this festival in the show Outsourced.

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Punit April 2, 2012 at 3:27 am

Nice,Loved your ‘Mr bad doggie’ one.best is the life of wandering sadhus of india :)

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Delia November 13, 2012 at 12:02 pm

He he… Love this, takes me right back to the time I was in India for Holi. All the above applies but instead of gunpowder it’s fluorescent dye… Almost as dangerous!

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