Deepavali, also called “Diwali” is the most important of all Hindu festivals and is celebrated by Hindus worldwide every year, including the five percent or so of Singaporeans who follow Hinduism. The meaning of “Deepavali” is “Festival of Lights,” and the holiday abounds with all manner of colourful lights displays in public and numerous clay lamps to light up private homes. This is meant to symbolise the Hindu religious concept of “light conquering darkness.”
In some countries, most notably India, Deepavali goes on for as long as five days, but in Singapore, most celebrate for only a single day. The date moves since it is based on the Hindu Calendar, but it generally comes between mid-October and mid-November.
What precisely in the Hindu legends that Deepavali commemorates is something of an open question, to which different answers are often given. Some say it celebrates the return of Rama to his throne after a 14-year banishment to the lonely forest lands by his evil stepmother. Others see the day as connected with the worship of Mahalakshmi, the Hindu goddess of light, good fortune, and prosperity. Most, however, take Deepavali’s background story to be the defeat of the wicked Narakasura by Krishna in an epic battle that ended in the people of Madura, India, welcoming the victor with lit up oil lamps.
Religious rituals for Hindus on Deepavali include waking up at dawn to bath in oil, dressing up in colourful clothing, and going to a local temple for prayers. At home, clay oil lamps are lit, doors are decked out with green mango leaves, and colourful designs called “rangoli,” which are made of dyed rice or flours, are drawn on the floor. Homes are also thoroughly cleaned and adorned with flowers and other colorful decorations.
Food also looms large in Deepavali celebrations. In Singapore, you can expect such dishes as deep-fried dough covered in syrup, rice-flour pancakes, lentil cakes, yogurts, and sweets made out of mung beans.
In the markets, the stalls will greatly multiply, and shoppers will crowd in from every side. Some of the main fare for sale will include: flower garlands, jewellery, and various souvenirs and crafts. There will also be many hand painters more than happy to draw flowers and other designs on your hands using locally made henna dyes.
The number one symbols of Deepavali in Singapore are the two large arches that span the Serangoon Road in the “Little India” district. The lights, bazaars, and celebrations in this part of town are unmatched in the remainder of Singapore. Nonetheless, with 10 percent of Singaporeans being of Indian descent, five percent being Hindu, and many others choosing to join in the celebrations, Deepavali is a big event throughout the whole city.
- See two famous Hindu temples along the Serangoon Road and their Deepavali lights and decorations. The first is the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, built in 1855 and dedicated to the Hindu goddess “Kali.” Its imposing tower, doors covered in bells, and ceilings bedecked with countless statues of Hindu gods are quite a sight. The second is the Sri Mariamman Temple, which is the site of the annual Fire Walking Festival. The well trained participants walk over hot coals “to demonstrate the level of purity to which they have attained.” On the next day, the Silver Chariot Procession will take place at the same temple. That is, the chariot that bears the goddess Draupadai will start off from this temple on its way to Little India. Hindus believe this procession bestows blessings on the community.
- Two great places to shop in Singapore during Deepavali are our next items of interest. First, you should stop by the Mustafa Centre, a mall that is open for 24 hours a day. You can find nearly anything imaginable in this mall, ranging from precious gold jewellery to basic groceries. It will likely be packed for Deepavali, but if you can work your way through the crowds, you will find it is a worthwhile shopping experience.
- Next, you will almost certainly want to visit Deepavali Festival Village, a bazaar on Hastings Road that is the epitome of Deepavali shopping and has all manner of trinkets and unique souvenirs. It also has colourful clothing fit for donning during Deepavali and an endless array of food stalls where you can taste authentic Indian-Singaporean street food. The bazaar covers over 15,000 square feet and has an abundance of diverse stalls, so you can explore it literally for hours on end.
- Taste authentic Indian dishes in restaurants throughout Little India and beyond. Race Course Road is lined with such restaurants from ones side to the other, so they will not be hard to find. Colourful curries and spicy dishes eaten in Singapore for centuries are awaiting your discovery. Some of the best places to try for good Indian food in Singapore include: Kinara and Yantra for “chic, modern“ Indian cuisine, Song of India for luxury dining in a building designed like a colonial-era bungalow, Anjappar Singapore for laid back, traditional Indian “comfort food,” Muthu’s Curry for their locally famous “fish head curry dish,” and the Banana Leaf Apolo for a menu full of dishes served on banana leaves instead of plates.
In Singapore, only one-twentieth of the population is Hindu, and yet, the whole island comes alive for Deepavali in a way you will not soon forget. The most intense action is in Little India, but you will find events, lights, and decorations throughout the island.