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An insider's guide to Diwali

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(CNN) -- Diwali -- or the "festival of lights" -- is a major Hindu festival starting this weekend. The name of the festival comes from the Sanskrit word deepavali, which means a row of lights. It is celebrated for five consecutive days in the Hindu month of Ashwayuja, and is eagerly anticipated by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs around the world.

The festival of lights, you say? That sounds bright.

Indeed! The festival celebrations focus on lights and lamps -- homes are decorated with small earthenware oil lamps called diyas, and entire villages and cities are decorated with lights and illustrations of Hindu gods and goddesses. And the festivity only starts there: Many communities celebrate Diwali by lighting fireworks, praying, and enjoying a traditional family feast. Diwali marks the new year for many Hindus.

So how did Diwali start?

Hindus have different reasons for celebrating Diwali, but perhaps the most popular historic reasoning behind it comes from the popular Hindu epic, "Ramayana." In the epic, Lord Rama returns to his kingdom in Ayodhya with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana after a 14 year exile; during his exile, Rama killed the 10-headed demon king Ravana, who among other things, had terrorized citizens in his country and had even kidnapped Sita. It is believed that people lit oil lamps along Rama's path back home in the darkness as a sign of solidarity and adulation.

That's quite a story! What other historical origins does Diwali have?

For some Hindus, Diwali commemorates the killing of an evil demon Naraksura, by Lord Krishna's wife Sathyabhama. For others, the festival marks the completion of 21 days of austerity observed by the goddess Shakti to attain half the bodily form of the god Shiva.

So how do people celebrate, and whom do they pray to?

Expectedly for a diverse religion like Hinduism, many different ways of celebration and worship are seen. The two Goddesses celebrated in particular however, are Kali, and Lakshmi -- the goddess of wealth. Many Hindus start the new business year on this day, praying to Lakshmi for success in their ventures. In many cases, people build a small altar to Lakshmi and shower her idol with flowers, sweets, and money.

Tell me more about how Diwali is celebrated -- what do the kids do?

Even if they aren't already well-versed with the historic and religious origins of the festival, for children of all faiths across India and even among South Asian diasporic communities around the world, Diwali is a much anticipated time of fun and celebration. Children are generally gifted new clothes, toys, and sweets -- and of course, a few days off from school -- but perhaps most of all, they enjoy lighting firecrackers with their friends. The innovative firecrackers involve sparklers, "flower pots", ground wheels, rockets, and play-bombs of all shapes and sizes. In many villages around India, colorful village fairs or melas are held: Apart from exotic food stalls, rides, and puppet shows, the melas are livened up by jugglers, fortune tellers, acrobats, and snake charmers.

Firecrackers sound like fun, but isn't it all a bit dangerous?

It certainly can be. The Supreme Court of India recently banned firecrackers between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. on Diwali, while the governments of countries like Fiji and Nepal have banned firecrackers altogether. Apart from potential injuries sustained by mishandling or faulty manufacturing, various non-profit organizations have argued that the fireworks cause harmful smog. The noise from firecrackers also causes untold alarm and distress to animals.


Lighting candles for Diwali.

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