Driving from Lumbini to Varanasi on any other day would usually bring expected challenges – unpredictable traffic, lengthy border crossings, stray animals, bikes and auto-rickshaws. Yet today, India is in the throes of celebration. It’s Diwali season, and today is the last day of the festival. Traffic is bumper-to-bumper and everyone has a place to go, a meal to eat or relatives to visit. Horns are wildly bleeping, people are darting from shop to shop buying celebratory supplies while kids and animals are running around everywhere.
The name Diwali comes from the Sanskrit word Deepavali. ‘Deep’ means earthen lamp, and ‘avali’ means in a row. Effectively, Diwali is the festival of lights and it’s a five-day celebration of life, and awareness of inner light; each festival day holds religious significance for Hindus, as well as Sikhs and Jains. Because today is the last day to celebrate, much of India is bursting with as much light, dance and volume as it's spiritually possible.
There are many smaller towns between Lumbini and Varanasi, so there are just as many opportunities to witness Diwali in full swing. Chains of golden marigolds are hanging everywhere, strewn across houses and entry gates to towns. Even stray dogs wander around with smiles on their faces, marigold wreaths around their necks and bindis dotted on their furry foreheads.
Yet, one tradition catches my eye while we’re swerving through traffic and it’s a tradition that becomes more flamboyant as the towns get larger. Our bus slows down regularly to make way for distinct utility trucks. Their open trays are loaded with tall statues of religious figures and stacks of speakers bleeding electro-Hindi dance music. These trucks snail along, followed by crowds of men and boys dancing, singing clapping and cheering. Some are covered in pink powder or face-paint. They’re exuberant, relishing in their Diwali celebrations as the trucks elbow through the traffic. Even tractors are found in some towns, pulling behind them a trailer of statues and speakers. The joyous, festive spirit is infectious and it’s easy to forget about the time it’s taking to reach our destination.
Just when we think we’ve seen the biggest tractor or speaker stack or procession, there’s another one just down the road that’s trying to outdo the town before it. Men and boys are unperturbed by the hot, steamy weather or traffic jams. They somehow shimmy their way through the unorganised chaos. The dusty road is their dance-floor.
By the time we reach the outskirts of Varanasi, celebrations heighten to fever pitch. Crowds of people jam the streets, eager to celebrate one of the most popular festivals on India’s calendar. Children are holding balloons and blowing on musical whistles. A carnival stage, lit up by cascading fairy lights, lays to one side of the road where locals are munching away on fairy floss and dancing to the throbbing beats filing the night air. Firecrackers are set off to ward off evil spirits.
There are mixed feelings about the use of DJs, depending on who you talk to. Traditionally, local musicians would be hired to perform during these religious celebrations. Technology advancements and music popularity have sky-rocketed in India during recent times, so locals are increasingly hiring out speakers and DJs to create the party spirit needed for this scale of celebration. Some traditionalists, like our guide, seem disheartened by this growing popularity and fear that highly skilled musicians, a vital facet of India’s culture, are fading from public traditions. Musicians are gradually being put out of work, being replaced by speaker stacks and DJs wielding microphones.
Shops and eateries are bursting at the seams with food and those eating the food while others congregate around stalls to snack on samosas or deep-fried Diwali delicacies. Sleep doesn’t seem to be an option tonight for the people of India as they party on into the night. There doesn’t seem to be a sign of older traditions taking precedence over technology either. Though, our journey to Varanasi does prove one thing – the act of celebrating Diwali on such a dizzying scale won’t be dimming any time soon.