Deepavali – Celebrating the Light
Squatting at a corner of King Street amid the human bustle of Penang's Little India, Manickam P. sorts through a giant pile of fresh green banana leaves.
Clad in baggy khaki shorts and a sweat-soaked singlet, he seems to take no notice of either the automobiles that incessantly purr past or the hundreds of human apparitions that mill by him. The elderly odd-job worker certainly has his work cut out for him nowadays.
Sweating with the mid-day heat, he looks up over the stack of leaves fanned along the side of the road and smiles over his work and the flurry around. "Deepavali," he gushes, his hands moving quickly, tearing thick spines off the big fronds.
Manickam is not the only one in the historic cultural enclave who is busying himself with a smile.
Restaurants and eateries that serve Indian meals and snacks on the moist banana leaves have seen a surge in business. Deepavali – the Hindu festival of lights – is around the corner and an endless flow of visitors throng the precinct to do the shopping for the great day that falls on Sunday, 12 November 2023.
Jewellers, textile traders, trinket sellers and dress retailers offering the latest in Indian fashion are teeming with merry shoppers while music outlets boom out pounding Bollywood movie songs around the area.
It is the time of the year when the community again rejoices together in Hindu culture's most prominent festival. Deepavali is believed to be a deeply symbolic reminder of the conquest of good over evil, light over darkness, and commemorates the great epic mythological incident of the divine figure Krishna slaying the evil demon Narakasura. Some also believe that Deepavali commemorates the revered figure Rama's return to his kingdom after annihilating the feared demon emperor, Ravana.
But in true Malaysian style, the festival is celebrated not just by the Hindu community but also by all the people of the country. Well, the day will be a public holiday after all.
In Penang, it is customary among Hindus to organise open houses during Deepavali. Previously the open house concept was celebrated on a mammoth scale at Little India and at the nearby sea-facing Esplanade. The King of Malaysia himself had in previous years launched this event with his Queen. Popular Tamil movie stars were slated to travel to the island popularly called "The Pearl of the Orient" to entertain the crowd during the festivities.
Folks from various cultures and visitors from diverse countries converge on the marvelous breeze-swept Esplanade to eat the rainbow spread of delicacies, watch the dances, hear the music and songs, and just mingle with their Hindu brethren in a celebration that ultimately welcomes all to partake in the yearly joy.
Like the light that envelops the darkness, Deepavali in Penang ushers a wave of beauteous harmony that is a hallmark of the glittering Pearl of the East.
Written by Himanshu Bhatt
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
Updated 9 November 2023