By Dr. Kumar Mahabir
Trinidad and Tobago, land of Carnival, steelband, tassa, calypso and chutney, is the same country that gives the world its unique brand of Divali. Indeed, the Hindu Festival of Lights has become Trinidad’s second largest national open-air festival after Carnival. Divali is a welcomed alternative to the rambunctious indulgence in meat, alcohol, party and “wine,” and is arguably the largest vegetarian alcohol-free festival in the Caribbean, if not the Western Hemisphere. Divali is an event that the Ministry of Tourism can market as a major attraction in the fastest-growing world-wide trend of spiritual tourism.
Divali is the defining event that marks Trinidad as a multi-religious, multi-ethnic society with Hindus comprising the second largest religious group (24%) after Roman Catholics in the twin-island population of 1.3 million people. While Divali is essentially a Hindu festival, people of all faiths actively join in celebrating the triumph of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, and good over evil. Its non-Hindu adherents are attracted to the festival’s universal message as well as to the extravaganza that is not only unique but also provides a clean environment for the cultivation of a healthy body, mind and soul.
Nowhere else in the world do non-Hindus and non-Indians actively take part in the lighting of over ten million deyas on a dark night of the year. These tiny clay lamps are lit in homes, yards, streets, offices, public parks and playing fields. It is perhaps only in Trinidad that one can find split bamboo tubes transformed into magnificent works of art on which the deyas are placed. The split bamboo strips reach out toward neighbouring houses, streets and communities to symbolize the popular local mantra “all ah we is one.”
The eagerness to decorate is everywhere, and payment is the pride of the finished product. Streamers of all colours and patterns are made with kite paper and plastic and strung from jhandi [flag] poles. Brightly coloured fabric, balloons and bulbs decorate homes, offices and stages. Indeed, it is Divali that heralds the joy of the end-of-year celebrations. Strings of twinkling lights – clear and coloured – are strung high on buildings, trees, and even across streets. Effigies of Mother Lakshmi are made from bamboo tubes and large cardboard cut-outs. Calligraphy on signs and banners glitters with decorative paint. The starry designs of deyas and bulbs transform simple houses into magical kingdoms.
The nights are filled with free public performances in public parks and playing fields. Divali provides the perfect forum for showcasing the talent of both foreign and local performers in Indian song, music, dance and drama. Fashion shows are the highlight of all celebrations. Indeed, no celebration is considered complete or magnificent without a fashion show that is always eagerly anticipated by all. Indians in the Caribbean keep the tradition of Indian fashion alive by wearing dhotis, kurtas, Nehru jackets, saris, shalwars, nose-pins, necklaces, bangles, anklets, eyeliners, mehendi markings and forehead tikkas/bindis. Most Divali celebrations end with a competition for women in the crowd who vie to be the best-dressed fashion finalist. A Divali Queen is not only bestowed with a crown, but she is also showered with gifts and prizes.
Divali also boasts of Ram Leela/Lila which is perhaps the oldest living form of outdoor folk theatre in the Caribbean. The worship of Rama takes many forms, but community devotion [Ramayana yagna] outside the temple has the most public impact. During Divali tons of sweetmeats like parsad, kurma, burfi, pera, ladoo, jalebi, gulab jamoon and kheer [sweet rice] are made and distributed free.
Indian trade fairs during Divali have become the shopping hotspots for women who flock to the sites in thousands to buy mainly clothes and accessories. A kind of dizzy euphoria can also be seen in any one of the Indian apparel stores in the count-down to Divali. It is all part of the excitement that hums through the air during this pre-Christmas celebration as women try to dress their best, and stores try to outsell one another. Women more than men dress in their finest traditional Indian wear with matching jewellery, as models of grace and elegance.
The hub of all Divali celebrations in the island is Divali Nagar in central Trinidad. Indeed the Nagar is the most frequented entertainment centre in the country during Divali, second only to the Grand Stand in the Queen’s Park Savannah during Carnival. The grand display of fireworks in the air at the entertainment park resonates with the thunder of bamboo cannons, the explosions of firecrackers, and the sparkle of “star-lights” in villages across the country. On Divali night, thousands of people take to the streets on foot and in vehicles to behold houses and communities that look like an illuminated fairyland.