There are two things I’ve long wanted to do in India– stay with a local Indian family and celebrating Diwali in Varanasi.
Don’t ask me about why the latter. Maybe I wanted to see puja lights floating down the Ganga, maybe it was that Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India or the fact Varanasi was my first Indian city I traveled solo in. The truth is, I didn’t quite know what Diwali was all about.
Now, I was about to be celebrating Diwali with an Indian family.
What is Diwali?
Diwali, the festival of lights, is a five day annual celebration that occurs every October or November depending upon the calendar year. As part of the Hindu New Year, Diwali is one of the biggest festivals and is celebrated by Hindu, Jains andSikhs. It also honors the birth of Lakshmi (goddess of wealth), new beginnings and the triumph of light over darkness.
Celebrating Diwali in an Indian home
Indians like celebrating Diwali with candles (and divyas, aka clay pots holding candles), colored decorative lights are strung up and patakas or fireworks are played to celebrate life. Employers distribute gifts or sweets to their employees and a puja ceremony is often performed overall to the Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.
Inside the Indian home, family altars are adorned with flowers and symbols of wealth (i.s. gold and silver coins dipped in sweet milk, which one might bring to the eyes and throat to see and speak wealth ). Families spend time with each other, chant prayers, write special symbols to incant blessings, light candles, lay out sweets for offerings and you can smell incense in the air. After the puja ceremony is performed, the offering of sweets turns into prassad (blessings) that the family can eat later.
For merchant families like the Kanchandanis (the family I stayed with), this is an especially auspicious day and many rituals are performed to appease Lakshmi.
For photographers, Diwali is not so much an outside spectacle to photograph, but more of an internal family and friends ritual. You won’t find float parades nor will you see burning effigies as you can with some festivals. But there are a lot of lights, fireworks and you can feel the excitement in the air. Celebrating Diwali with an Indian family is a special highlight of my travels to India.
Staying with an Indian family in Varanasi
Maybe I’ve watched too many Bollywood films, but it’s been a long dream to be invited into an Indian home. When you admire and respect a culture, sometimes you just want to go deeper into it and experience it as if it were your own life.
I was fortunate my friend Kunal put me in touch with his family in Varanasi. The Kanchandanis are Kunal’s in-laws. The Kanchandani’s were generous and caring as hosts, as I’ve heard Indian families can be.
Interestingly, the Kanchandanis are a family of merchants. Tulsi, Mr Kanchandani, owns a clothing shop near the main ghat. Meanwhile, Seema is a housewife by day, but helps out at her sister’s shop. Now that their daughter Geeta, is grown and married to Kunal in Bangalore, the Kanchandanis were living life on their terms, focused on work, relatives and home.
Their house was about an 8-10 minute bicycle rickshaw ride away from the main ghat in Varanasi, home of the largest evening puja on the Ganges. Tulsi had a motorbike to zip him to and from work, while Seema opted for a rickshaw ride, gliding above traffic. Rickshaw rides are peaceful, you feel protected in its carriage and you can see over traffic, which is why I suspect Indian women prefer this type of transportation.
Urvashi and her younger sister (their nieces) were in charge of taking me around town. Seema, even invited a family friend Suraj, a university student to guide me around the temples, informing me about them. Meanwhile, Seema cooked three meals a day. Often, my sightseeing had to be timed around it as I was expected to be back to take lunch in the late afternoon and then dinner in the late evening when Tulsi came home from work. Seema made meals by hand and from scratch.
Inside an Indian home
Some upper middle class Indian homes like the Kanchandani’s can feel similar to western homes but there were still very traditional Indian ways about it. Every family is different. The Kanchandanis were wealthy to have a housekeeper help with daily work around the house. They also had a water filtration devices by the kitchen for drinking water as drinking tap water in India is not advised. Bathing was performed via hot pour water buckets, where you sudz up and then pour warm water over you to wash off and the house had a traditional squat toilet (a raised porcelain bowl), which I suspect has to do with the age of the house and the fact many Indians still find a squat toilet more sanity and healthier for bowl movement. According to scientific studies, squat toilets are healthier than western toilets.
All in all, my stay was perfect. The hospitality of an Indian family is generous, warm and proud. It was such a treat for me to stay with the Kanchandanis and it’s a special memory I’ll always have of India.
Are you interested in celebrating Diwali?
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