My Diwali started early. By 6 a.m., I was plunging in the cold sarovar of the Harimandir Sahib. The sky was gray and the November fogs of Amritsar were beginning to disperse, making way for the hazy autumn sun. My companions were Gurprakash Singh, Sri Avtar Singh, and Sri Avtar’s father Jugat Guru Singh, the last of whose birthday we were celebrating. We all inclined our heads and recited ardas. The birds in the Baba Buddha tree twittered and kirtan rang out across the water.
After dressing, Gurprakash and I parted ways with Jugat Guru and his son to meet with our table teacher, Ustad Murli Manohar. His house lies deep in the labyrinthine streets and alleys of Guru Bazar, a section of the old city directly around the Harimandir. Even motorcycles have trouble squeezing through the streets. Sweetshops were laying out their Diwali wares; patissa, pinni, and cashew burfi took center stage. We were sure to stop for a couple of boxes of sweets to offer our teacher and his family.
As usual, we were greeted as royalty in Murli Ji’s home. He ordered fresh potato kulcha and chholay from a famous kulchawala not doors away from his abode. We had to eat quickly, for Murli Ji, a Hindu, had called a pundit to his home for a traditional havan.
As we finished our food, the pandit arrived and began laying out the various things that would be offered to the fire. I had never seen this type of ceremony before, which Murli Ji referred to as a powerful meditation for him and his family. The pundit began reciting verses in Sanskrit in rapid fire cadence. As he recited, he would direct Murli Ji and his family to place marigold petals here, jaggery there, and sprinkle water all over. I did not nor do not really know the significance of the ceremony, but it was intriguing. Perhaps most peculiar was that the pundit lit an open wood fire in the middle of the living room in a steel bowl supported by bricks. Cued by breaks in the verse, Murli Ji’s family would throw samagri, a blend of herbs and spices, into the fire. It was pungent to say the least!
I appreciated the experience and felt grateful that Murli and his family had thought to invite us to such an important family ritual for them. After sharing sweets and watching Murli Ji’s son and nephew demonstrate their tabla skills for us, we went on our way.
Diwali spirit in India is like Christmas spirit in the US, but more so. Every storeowner offers food, discounts, free products, well wishes, and wisdom. We stopped to buy shawls for Jugat Guru’s birthday and the Jain (for whom Diwali is also an important day) owners of the shop would not let us leave until we’d eaten sweets that they personally served us. Gurprakash’s optician insisted we drink lime soda and eat nuts with him. Meanwhile, he waxed poetic about the importance of Diwali for him and his family. He explained that for decades now, his family makes the point of making five hundred sandwiches to share with those less fortunate on the holiday as a way to give thanks for his family has received.
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Our car edged through rushing crowds. Above the walls of the complex at the Harimandir, the domes of the Akal Takht could be seen dripping with strands of white lights. We entered the complex; the cool autumn air gave way to the sheer body heat of the thousands of pilgrims sitting by the nectar tank. Families sat together lighting tiny candles, the wax already caking on the marble. Little flames flickered in the loving eyes of brothers and sisters, husbands and wives; their eyes outlined by glowing faces lit up by candles.
The complex was in rare form. Not a single surface was left bare of glimmering white lights. The sarovar twinkled, reflecting each one.
But our mission that night was to see a more somber vision. The only twinkle in this sea was the blade of a spear catching light. A sea of blue appeared before the Akal Takhat. Heads bowed, listening to Rahiras Sahib, sat 500 weapon clad Nihang Singhs. Representing the various armies, they were present to be honored by the sangat. It felt like being transported to another time.
Their dumallas were piled high on their heads. The senior warriors adorned their turbans with the honored farla, a length of cloth that hung from the top of their turbans. Despite their intimidating look, they were jovial and welcoming. After Rehiras Sahib and a display of the collection of weapons held in the Akal Takht, the Nihang Jathedars were honored with orange saropas. Then, the jathedars formed a circle and began chanting the vaars of Guru Gobind Singh from his Dasam Granth. The poems were about bravery, service, and battle. Like the story of Ram returning from slaying Ravan, the vaars were about light overcoming darkness.