Celebrating the Festival of Lights in Oman

T-Mag Thursday 24/October/2019 08:26 AM
By: Times News Service
Celebrating the Festival of Lights in Oman
The welcoming behaviour and tolerant nature of Oman means that foreign nationals in the country are free to celebrate their own festivals and honour their traditions. With a significant number of Oman’s expat population coming from South Asia, the end of October marks a special occasion for many of them, for it brings with it the festival of Diwali.
Traditionally known as the Festival of Lights, it is a time when festival goers festoon their homes with decorations and celebrate joyously with their families and friends. Homes in which Diwali is celebrated often have the traditional earthen lamps both inside and out, signifying the dawn of a new era and illuminating the path that lies ahead.
It is also an occasion on which people dress up in their finest outfits and best jewellery and shopping for them often begins months in advance. These and many more facets of the festival are what make it enormously enjoyable and fascinating to be a part of, and with Diwali just around the corner, T Weekly spoke to South Asian expats in Oman to find out what they most loved about the festival and how it’s changed since they were children.

Mukund Manohar and Sandhya Subramanian
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A long-term Indian expatriate resident in Oman, Mukund went to Indian School Muscat before heading out to the United States, where he spent 10 years, initially going there to complete his university education before landing a job in Baltimore, Maryland.
A short stint in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates followed before he returned to his second home in the Sultanate of Oman. In late 2018, Mukund married Sandhya Subramanian, and this will be the first Diwali the two will celebrate together as husband and wife.
Before moving to the Middle East, Sandhya spent all her life in India, which means this is the first Diwali she will also celebrate in Oman, making for a striking difference in the manner in which she will welcome the Festival of Lights this time around.

How do you celebrate Diwali at home?
Mukund: Growing up in Oman, the Indian Schools were always off for Diwali and it was a day we always looked forward to. My sister and I would wake up early in the morning and our parents would give us new clothes and gifts. The evenings would then be filled with visits to the temple and also to various Diwali celebrations at friends’ homes. It was customary to exchange sweets and gifts with our close friends.
Sandhya: Diwali has always been a traditional affair in our household. My amma would start the preparations weeks in advance. She would start by asking each of us for the names of our favourite sweets and preparations would go full swing from there.
The aromas of traditional south Indian sweets and savouries like Mysore pak, maaladdoo (flour laddoos), coconut barfi, peda, murukku and pakoras would fill the house (and our stomachs of course).On Diwali day we would all wake up at 4am and burst a 5000 wala (a type of firecracker) at the break of dawn.
This was followed with the wearing of the much-coveted new clothes, which we would get from our parents after taking their blessings. The day would come together with homemade delicacies, some quality family time, special movies telecast on TV and more fireworks of course.

What is it that you like most about Diwali?
Mukund: Diwali is one Indian festival that is associated with diverse traditions and symbolism. Although people from different parts of India associate Diwali with their own unique traditions, the main message that is common to all is the triumph of knowledge over ignorance and good over evil. Diwali is the festival that symbolises new and ethical beginnings, the removal of all evil obstacles and celebration of life’s blessings. Good will defeat evil. This simple, yet powerful message about Diwali is something that I like most about this festival; a reminder that we all must do our part to achieve this victory.
Sandhya: Clothes, family time and food - in that order! As an adult, however, the biggest change would definitely be the reduction in fireworks. For the most part our Diwali routine still remains the same with amma preparing our favourite sweets and savouries. Another change in the last few years has been us going out to a restaurant for a special Diwali lunch. It has become somewhat of a family tradition now where all of us dress up in our Diwali finery and head out for a scrumptious meal.
Also, in terms of couture, Diwali is the best time to wear those beautiful Kanchipuram sarees, given the weather is pleasant around that time. Being the saree loyalist that I am, I go all out in picking my Diwali attire months in advance.

What are your fondest memories of Diwali?
Mukund: Some of the fondest memories of Diwali have been enjoying the various sweets and savouries alongside the buffet lunch spread prepared by my mother. We would also enjoy wearing our new clothes and spending the evenings with our friends.
Whenever we visited India during Diwali, it was always a time that brought together all our loved ones in our family home. We would start the day by seeking the blessings of our grandparents and spend the entire day setting off fireworks along with our cousins, uncles and aunts. The entire family would come together for the Diwali feast and it was always a time that we cherished and enjoyed.
Sandhya: My fondest Diwali memory would be my father (appa) taking my sister, brother and me firecracker shopping. It was probably the most exciting thing as a child to be able to select whatever fireworks we wanted. He gave us a free hand with that, and we would spend a good four hours picking out the crackers and another hour sorting it out amongst the three of us once we were back home.

This will be your first Diwali in your own home in Oman. How do you plan on celebrating?
Mukund: This year I would like to show my wife how we expatriates in Oman celebrate Diwali. Oman has a diverse Indian community and we usually spend Diwali with all our families and close friends. Diwali in Oman is all about sharing the joy and celebrating this special day with not just our expatriate friends, but also our Omani friends. They say the greatness of a culture can be found in its festivals, but in Oman, Diwali brings out not just the greatness of the culture but also the people.
Sandhya: Given this is our first Diwali after marriage (Thala Diwali), per custom it should be celebrated with both the families coming together. However, since I am away from India, I was hoping to have my family over and plan a Diwali bash along with our friends and family here in Muscat. I am also hoping I can carry on some of the tradition from India here - with the sweets and sarees I suppose!
Oman has been very kind to me so far. I have never lived outside India before getting married and I was obviously worried about the move. But ever since I’ve got here, I have fallen in love with the country, with the people and the culture. Everyone and everything here is so welcoming and despite the risk of sounding cliché, Oman is truly a home away from home!

How did you spend Diwali in the US?
Mukund: The US has a vibrant Indian community and Diwali is celebrated with quite the pomp and celebration. Diwali in the US is quite similar to that in Oman, the Indian community coming together to celebrate this special day and giving thanks and appreciation for what we have.

Vikram Gokhale
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An alumnus of Indian School Muscat, Vikram followed in his father’s footsteps by moving to Oman when he found a job that suited his skills and abilities.
Now employed in the automobile sector, Vikram, who originally comes from the Indian state of Maharashtra, still lives with and adores his parents. Being an ardent family man, Vikram’s family’s Diwali festivities are always very close, personal affairs that see many of their extended relations come home for some memorable festivities. This year is no exception either.

How did you celebrate Diwali as a child?
When we were children, my sister and I used to help our mom make traditional Marathi sweets, we used to make spicy chakli, shakkarpara (sugar biscuits), karanji (deep-friend dumplings), laddoos and chiwda (snack mix). As a child, we used to arrange the items for our mother and help her however we could. We would also offer prayers on that day as it was was very auspicious for us. On the other days, we used to invite people home or go to people’s homes for food.

What is your fondest Diwali memory?
A big part of our Diwali celebration is called Bhau Bij, which is a traditional Marathi celebration that symbolises the protective bond a brother has for a sister. On this day, the brother often gifts the sister something as a token of his protection. When I was younger, my father would give me some money to give her, but as I got older, I gave her things on my own, such as a watch or some jewellery, depending on the occasion.
How have your celebrations changed as an adult?
The significant change in celebration is that we now get more items from outside, whereas previously, my mother would make these things herself. A lot of people now don’t make things at home. Now, I think Diwali has become a closer, more family-centric affair. We don’t go out as often.
I think in many ways the concept of Diwali has changed from being a religious affair to more of a social occasion. Originally, Diwali had a religious background, but now it has become a reason to step out of the house to attend social gatherings. This in my opinion at times is important – the social part was always there – but now it is more about which dress you want to wear, and this should not have happened, because now the social element is being emphasised more.

What are your plans for Diwali this year?
The entire reason behind Diwali is not really a festival, but a time for festivity. It does call for celebration, but it should also be where you take stock of what you have done over the past year and what you plan on doing over the next. It is not a time to party but understanding that next year will have its own challenges, so have faith in your beliefs and plan for next year to be better than this year.
It is not just about spending money. Of course, spending money during festivities does help the economy, so it acts as a way to strengthen the market, but the underlying factor is that you have to analyse last year’s performance and look at how you can overcome your losses in the coming year. It is in many ways your spiritual performance review.

Tanvi Mohindra
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Like many second-generation expats here in Oman, Tanvi loves and enjoys celebrating Diwali with her parents. Having completed her schooling in Muscat, Tanvi, like many long-term foreign nationals in the country, also considers the Sultanate to be her second home.
Staying here, however, makes one inevitably compare the lives all of us have in Oman with that which we left behind back home, and it is the same with Tanvi as well, as she draws parallels with the way she celebrates Diwali here, and the celebrations she had in India.

How did you celebrate Diwali as a child?
In India, before Diwali, we’d do all of the festival shopping, and we’d decorate our homes and light the traditional lamps and candles. We would have our prayer ceremonies at home, and then, all the neighbours and my cousins would come home, and we’d celebrate in our courtyard, setting off fireworks and exchanging sweets.

How have your celebrations changed as an adult?
When we came to Oman, it changed a lot because you don’t have that sort of festive feel here, although people still celebrate it. When we came here, we knew that fireworks were prohibited, but we would go to the temple, light candles and then go to our friends’ Diwali parties. Most of my family are in India, and we hardly knew anyone when we came here.

What is your fondest Diwali memory?
I would say it would be the celebrations we had as children, although on one occasion, I had a small accident when I was playing with a cracker and it exploded in my hand. My fingers got a little bit burned and you do get scared the first time this happens.
It was not that bad, so we just put some ointment on it, but playing with crackers isn’t safe. It is quite dangerous, so you must be careful and avoid taking unnecessary risks.

Ashish Kumar Mallick
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Hailing from Bangladesh, which contributes one of Oman’s biggest expat communities, Ashish spent his childhood in Ibra in the Sharqiyah region before moving to the capital to finish school, after which he attended university in Muscat and landed a job that has seen him travel all the way from Dhofar in the south to Musandam in the north.
He ticked another box on life’s long list of achievements when he got married recently, with this being his second Diwali since tying the knot. Although he’s spent most of his life here, Ashish has on occasion witnessed the grand celebrations in his homeland when he’s travelled there and has fond memories of his time enjoying the festival with friends and family.

How did you celebrate Diwali as a child?
As a child, since we were living in Oman, we used to mostly celebrate Diwali at home. We would greet our friends and relatives in the morning and would offer prayers at a session organised at home. In the evening, we would light the lamps and we’d then distribute sweets to all the neighbours. If we had any family or friends living nearby, we’d go to visit them, or they would come to visit us. It wasn’t a very grand celebration that took place, but it was very sweet and intimate.

How have your celebrations changed as an adult?
As an adult, I don’t get many opportunities to celebrate, because I have been away from home for various purposes such as study or work. I think the celebrations were better when I was a child. As an adult, if there is an opportunity to meet during Diwali, or if there is a public holiday at that time, then we meet up and celebrate.
Now that my wife is here, these celebrations have changed a little. I’ve only celebrated Diwali on one occasion after marriage, and when I was single, I didn’t know how to perform the proper rituals on my own, but now that my wife is here, we plan to do something. Last time, we went to the nearby temple to offer prayers, went on an outing and then bought sweets.
What are celebrations like back home in Bangladesh?
Back in my home country, the celebrations are huge. There is a big family gathering. Relatives and friends from all around the country come to their hometowns and gather together. A lot of decorations are put up, and plenty of activities are planned. It is a huge family gathering so it is much more fun, and the celebrations go on for days.
Of course, I do miss the spectacle of these celebrations when I am here. I have only been to Bangladesh a few times and I have fond memories of the celebrations.

What is your fondest Diwali memory?
I have only been to my home country a few times during Diwali celebrations. On one of those occasions, when I was an adult, I once went to my hometown for Diwali. There was a huge celebration that year. My cousins and I planned all of our celebrations beforehand. We went shopping, we distributed sweets everywhere, and visited the various locations where festive decorations had been put up and where the festivals were being celebrated.
We went back to our native village, and there, we had this huge decorative arrangement. We stayed there for two or three days, we set off fireworks and we played a lot of games. Yes, fireworks are not good for the environment, but we still burst a few and had some fun.

What are your plans for Diwali this year?
This year, I will see if I can get some local friends to celebrate Diwali. We can go together to some place where people celebrate Diwali or can organise a Diwali party. We will also go to a nearby temple and offer prayers there.

Sayonto Gupta and Aahna Gandhi
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To Sayonto, Oman seems to be the sort of location you leave but keep coming back to, returning even more grateful for the peace and serenity that is seldom found anywhere else but in the Sultanate.
An alumnus of Indian School Al Wadi Al Kabir, Sayonto left Oman for boarding school when he was just a teen, before returning here to work. Fate would have other plans in store for him, though, when he was prised away from the country and given the opportunity to return to India. For a while at least.
In 2019, Sayonto returned to Oman – with Aahna, his wife of nearly four years – now accompanying him back to the Essence of Arabia. This, however, will not be the first Diwali the two of them celebrate as husband and wife in the Middle East. She has to travel back to India...such is life. Nevertheless, Sayonto is gearing up to celebrate the Festival of Lights here in the Sultanate.

How did you celebrate Diwali as a child?
When I was a child, I left for boarding school when I was in the eighth grade. This boarding school was in India, and Diwali celebrations there are grand. As boarding school students, we were given a certain number of fireworks, and back then, they were on widespread sale. We had great fun. In the evenings, we’d eat sweets and wear traditional ethnic clothes.

How have your celebrations changed as an adult?
When I got married and moved into our own home, our Diwali celebrations heavily involved the family. When we moved to Delhi after marriage, we cooked the Diwali treats ourselves, and then went downstairs with the family members and let off sparklers. We did not burst crackers because we believe in a green Diwali, but we celebrated the Festival of Lights by lighting lamps.

What is your fondest Diwali memory?
The first time my wife and I decorated our home for Diwali was our fondest Diwali. This was in 2018...just a year ago.

What are your plans for Diwali this year?
Unfortunately, I will be alone this Diwali because my wife will be travelling. I will probably go to the temple and enjoy the celebrations there, after which I might celebrate with my friends here.
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