Deepavali, also known as Diwali, is one of the most important events on the Singapore public calendar. It is a public holiday and a major religious and cultural festival for our local Hindu community, and also significant for Sikhs and Jains.
Usually taking place in early November, Singaporeans can look forward to a brilliant display of lights and other decorations along major thoroughfares in Singapore, along with the lovingly-decorated homes of Singaporeans who commemorate the occasion.
To learn more about the famed festival of lights, I spoke to Ruthirapathy Parthasarathy, general manager of the Banana Leaf Apolo restaurant. He is also a prominent member of LISHA, the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association, which seeks to preserve the heritage and culture of Little India, while also contributing to its development.
Helping to run a restaurant chain famous for its delectable fish head curries, under the stewardship of Mr C Sankaranathan, Ruthirapathy is a busy man. But the gregarious 52-year-old, a veteran of three decades in the retail business, generously cleared some space in his schedule to tell me all about Deepavali and his love for the holiday’s traditions.
Could you briefly describe the significance of Deepavali, and explain what happens on the day?
Deepavali is the Festival of Lights, and represents the victory of good over evil. It is a religious festival and event, and celebrated on Nov. 4 this year, and when we believe good triumphs over evil. In a way, it’s like bringing light into our homes. So we will light up small lamps all over the house on the eve of the festival.
Most people will be vegetarians on the day itself. In the morning, they will apply oil to their hair before visiting the temple. Then, they will visit relatives, usually starting with their parents or grandparents first. Later, they will visit friends, or welcome them to their homes. Of course, it might be a challenge this year.
When you were younger, did your parents involve you in the Deepavali celebrations?
Yes, they did. As a boy I lived in Jalan Tenteram (near Kallang) and it was almost like a kampung atmosphere. In the early morning, the Hindus would give out savoury snacks and sweetmeats to their neighbours. Today, I do the same thing with my own neighbours. Last time we used to give to so many people, but now it’s come down in scale a bit, to those who are around you.
Last time it was on a bigger scale, big crowds would visit your open house without even calling first. They’ll just walk in and you have to ensure there’s enough food and space for them, but in a way it was very joyous. Now it’s smaller, mostly with your own families or immediate friends, but it’s still joyous.
Do you feel that Deepavali is more of a community celebration, or a personal one?
For any religion, I would think that it is a community-based festival, as the whole community is involved and you’ll feel the magnitude of the occasion. By going to the temple, you’ll see so many people and somehow it uplifts your spirits. Everybody’s dressed up well, and you will see Indian ladies in their saris and men in their kurtas. It is more than an individual celebration, it’s definitely a community one.
Technology has caused some changes. For instance, last time everyone would go to the shops a month earlier and buy greeting cards, and send them around and you see them displayed in your house, but now everything is by WhatsApp. Maybe it’s not too personal, but it’s still good to have, it’s the effort that counts and we have to move in tandem with the times.
What are some misconceptions about Deepavali that you would like to clear up for Singaporeans?
Deepavali is a religious festival, it is not the New Year. In fact for Indians there is no one common New Year, with different ethnic groups celebrating different occasions...for Singaporeans, it is our religious festival and the celebration of good over evil.
But there is also a scientific side to it. It is believed that Deepavali falls on the darkest night of the year. So, people will put lights all over the outside of their homes for people who are travelling, and farmers who are coming back from the fields.
What is something that you personally look forward to about Deepavali?
For me it’s the gathering of all my relatives and friends. I used to have so many of my friends coming over every time, having their lunch and dinner at our open house. So many hours we’ll chit-chat, we’ll have Indian movies on TV. So many of my Chinese friends will come and they love to watch the movies and enjoy the food. So I think the best part is, of course, bringing the community together in Singapore, especially. You know all coming together and staying a few hours in your friend's house….I do miss it last year and probably this year as well.
Celebrate while staying safe
As with everything in Singapore today, the Covid-19 pandemic has snatched some joy from even our time-honoured traditions. As of the time of writing, there remain strict rules on social interactions, with up to two unique visitors allowed to visit a household a day. Ruthirapathy and I both express hope that things will get better next year.
He hopes that Singaporeans will still be able to enjoy the beautiful decorations and do some shopping while still keeping themselves safe.
“Safety is paramount”, and he recommends that shoppers visit Little India not just on the eve of Deepavali itself, but to pace themselves over the next couple of weeks to prevent big crowds from building up, ideally visiting in the afternoons.
There are many shops who have brought in goods for the occasion, and Ruthirapathy hopes the community will be able to support the retailers as they have endured a difficult year and a half. The planned light-up display is also "fantastic", Ruthirapathy promises, with the work beginning in February earlier this year, and the temple tower serving as the main feature.
Activities to mark the occasion
Singaporeans from all walks of life can take part in a variety of activities to celebrate Deepavali and participate in one of the richest local cultural experiences in the calendar.
For foodies, the Little India Biriyani Fiesta is a dream come true. Until Nov. 21, a selection of 30 restaurants in the area will be featured, with special discounts and promotions on a weekly basis.
For anyone who loves biriyani (in other words, everyone), the fiesta is a great way to get acquainted with the culinary wonders of Little India.Take part in an exciting “Puzzle Hunt” for the lost relic of Little India at the Indian Heritage Centre in a guided event on Oct. 31. While walking through the streets and solving puzzles, you can learn more about the history and heritage of the precinct, and Indian culture in general.
Come visit Poli @ Clive Street until Nov. 21 to see the record-setting Community on Colours paper flower installation, made from recycled materials and repurposed into something wonderful.
And of course, this year’s light-up feature is a sight that one simply can’t miss.
The main decorative feature is the "Gopuram", an ornate monumental entrance tower, with side pillars resembling intricately carved stone pillars and pursuing arches in a crescent shape.
Elegant peacock displays will also be positioned along Serangoon Road and Race Course Road for that perfect Instagram shot.
Be sure to drop by the Indian Heritage Centre from Nov. 14 to gaze at the miniature replica of the Deepavali street light-up arch along Campbell Lane. All visitors are welcome. Featuring the decorated arch and the peacock designs, this light installation will serve as the perfect backdrop for more photos.
But even if you prefer to remain indoors, LISHA and partners have arranged for a host of virtual events for everyone to take part, no matter where they are.
On Oct. 23, local celebrities will take part in a lively “debate” in colloquial Tamil, joined by celebrity judge Erode Magesh from Tamil Nadu. Age-old questions like “Who indulges themselves more in Deepavali celebrations, men or women?” will be discussed at length.
There will also be a “mega event” on Nov. 4 itself, with dances, songs, drama and variety shows to keep you entertained throughout the day. According to LISHA, "the show is curated on a mega platform celebrating with Indians from all around the globe with Singapore's programs exclusively performed and presented by members of LISHA Literary Club."
And while some of the activities have already concluded, you can still access the videos via LISHA’s Facebook page.
Check out this “Sweet and Savoury” three-part cooking demo for recipes such as murukku, cashew and raisin nei urundai and almond badusha:Or check out the “Cooking Masterclass'' video by celebrity star Chef Arifin, also known as the Vasantham Chef, where he whips up delicious dishes such as wrapped chicken biriyani, saffron flavoured mango kulfi and more.
There are even more events and activities that you can check out.
This is a sponsored article by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). Top image from STB.