Festival of light that's heavy on the calories

A Slice of Britain: This weekend, it's Diwali. Once a celebration only for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains, today huge numbers of other Britons join in – and get their first taste of its dangerously delicious foods

"I've been out of bed between 3.30 and five o'clock every morning for the last 10 days to make all the food," says Ansuya Lakhani. "This is what Diwali is about; making the food your children love."

Mrs Lakhani, 65, from Barkingside in east London – or "Mum" to me – has no way of knowing who will drop round over the next couple of days to wish the family Happy Diwali and Happy New Year, but there must be enough food to offer everyone.

As if to underline the point, a neighbour and co-worker at the local charity shop calls in, and isn't allowed to leave without a bag of Indian sweets, or mithai – bite-sized cholesterol bullets of sugar, ghee and condensed milk.

In truth, like many celebrations, it requires hard work. When I was growing up, mum cooked a full Indian meal for 35 members of my family every Diwali. She has had a respite of late only because there are now too many of us to fit in one house.

All over the UK, indeed, all over the world, Diwali – the festival of lights – is celebrated at this time of year by Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains everywhere. Small candles or diyas – made with cotton string wicks inserted into small pots filled with oil – are lit in houses, shops and temples to signify this victory of inner good over the evil within all of us.

Diwali has become integral to Anglo-Asian culture, including business owners and their families who gather in temples, halls and houses across the country this weekend to conduct the ancient ceremony called chopda pujan. New accounts books (and laptops) are opened and blessed for the start of the New Year while praying to the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, to bring prosperity.

This is one of the ceremonies that intrigues an increasing number of people from different backgrounds and religions, according to the Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, north London, the largest Hindu temple in Europe, where tens of thousands of visitors – around 20 per cent of them non-Hindu – will today sample hundreds of dishes made in honour of Lord Krishna.

Leicester, where almost half of the city's population is of South Asian origin, hosts the biggest street party outside India, with crowds of 50,000 people expected to gather over the weekend for food and fireworks. The Diwali/Christmas lights were switched on two weeks ago and will be kept on until the beginning of January.

London's own big event, in Trafalgar Square, began in 2001, and was attended two weeks ago by the usual crowd of Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims and atheists, enjoying dancers, musicians and vegetarian food.

The build up to all this starts at the beginning of the 12th month of the Hindu lunar calendar – Asomas – when thousands of families across the country gather for nine nights to celebrate Navratri – the worship of strength or power – with traditional garba folk-dancing in school halls and community centres. After that there are only 20 days until Diwali to shop for saris, send Diwali cards – or texts, these days – clean the house, and start cooking.

Like most Indian women of her age, my mother has been doing this for ever. First in Uganda, until 1972, and then in England. Many of the customs have been forgotten or adapted, but Diwali is still the day women show their families just how much they care; not through presents but through food. And for many people it is the only day of the year they will go to the temple with their parents or grandparents, like those who go to church only for midnight mass on Christmas Eve.

Children – Asian, black or white – who live in multicultural areas have grown used to celebrating Diwali, Eid, Hanukkah, Guru Nanak day and Christmas. Many schools have holidays for all five religions now as teachers try to foster tolerance and friendship.

Inevitably, some traditions have changed. Most people, even my mum, now buy their mithai rather than make them. Durga Sweets in Ilford, east London, is famous for its jalebi – a deep-fried syrupy sweet – and barfi, made from condensed milk and sugar. Customers started queuing at nine o'clock yesterday morning, and the crowds continued until the shop shut 11 hours later. Inside, it is organised chaos. Three generations of the Sharma family, aged between 11 and 65, are helping. Viney Sharma, 20, a film and media student in Manchester, is manning the till: "We've been helping out every year since we were old enough to carry things," he laughs, looking at his father. "Where else would I be?"

Bombay Looks, the sari shop next door, has been doing a roaring trade as lots of girls and women show off new saris this weekend. My niece, Kaya, aged two and a half, is dressed up in her own new sari and is as excited as her grandmother. Together they perform and sing the aarti, a Hindu ritual, for the deities in the two mini temples at home. Kaya loves it, just as I did when growing up.

"Diwali is our Christmas," says my mum, wearing a sari she bought in India on her last visit. "I still look forward to the day, even though I'm getting old. Seeing my friends and family, cooking nice food for them all, I'll always love that. I'm not sure about the younger generation. It doesn't matter if they buy all the food, as long as they still get together. I hope that never stops."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine