In my old life, the one where I was a middle school English teacher, my travel days were limited. I realize it’s silly to complain about fixed holidays when I got so many of them, but realistically they were during the most expensive times to travel: Christmas, Easter, and the summer. I also didn’t have the flexibility to see the countries I wanted to see when I wanted to see them. That often meant missing a lot of holidays and celebrations. As a traveler who loves meeting locals and learning about culture, I was missing out on some opportunities I wanted to be a part of.
Now that my life is a bit more free, and I can travel whenever I want, I am able to experience the countries I am visiting the way I want to and without feeling rushed. In November and December of 2015, for the first time, I was able to spend a significant amount of time in a foreign place, something I was previously unable to do, and lucky for me, a celebration was on the horizon.
Some time after booking my trip to India, I realized that I would be celebrating Diwali while studying yoga at Rishikesh Yog Dham. I knew a decent amount about Diwali, as I used to teach about it when I taught social studies in fifth grade, but I was excited to experience the holiday first-hand.
Diwali is a festival of lights. As we were taught in philosophy, Sita, who was married to Prince Rama, was kidnapped by Ravana, a demon king. Hanuman, the monkey god, found Sita and rescued her. Then, Prince Rama killed Ravana, and Sita and him began their long journey home. Every one lit lamps to light their way because it was a moonless light, which is what makes it a celebration of lights. This was not something I had ever heard about, but I loved learning the story and understanding the holiday further. The holiday also honors the goddess wealth, Lakshmi.
As the holiday approached, houses near school began getting decorated and lit up with lights, as we would do for Christmas in the States. The streets were alive with excitement and each night, I’d fall asleep to the sounds of fireworks and music playing; the feeling of the coming holiday was lurking around every corner.
I couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement, especially because I had always loved Indian culture from afar. This time, however, I got to play a part in it. A couple of the girls and I decided it would be fun to get sarees for the occasion, so we headed into downtown Rishikesh. Comparable to a mall during Christmas time, the market was bustling with people buying new clothes, sweets, and fireworks. We stopped and indulged in a few sweets and bought fireworks to shoot off the night before the big celebration, the third day of Diwali.
A few days before Diwali, the school surprised us by putting lights up in the middle of the night. I saw a colorful glow outside of my window and peaked out to the decorations feeling like a kid at Christmas time. It was so magical and got us all ready for the celebrations. We had normal classes on the day of Diwali, but there were treats at breakfast and the whole school was decorated even more than the previous days. The staff was clearly excited to celebrate and share their holiday with us.
At lunch, one of our teachers asked if anyone was artistic, and I immediately raised my hand. To be honest, I am not really artistic though I like to pretend I am, but I knew he was going to ask us to make rangolis, designs made with colorful sand, and I wanted in on the action. I surprised the teachers by even knowing what a rangoli was, but it was all from when I used to teach that period of social studies.
Giulia and I volunteered to spend our break making colorful rangolis with sand, which was something I had always wanted to do. Being able to do so in India and be a part of the preparations for the night’s puji was an honor. One more asana class stood between us and our celebration, but even though it was difficult, it went by quickly and we were let out a little early so we could get ready for the ceremony.
A few of us struggled to get into our sarees, but with a little help from a few online videos and Arvind, our yoga teacher, we managed to make it all work. Then, we headed downstairs for puja. While the first night’s ceremony was completely new, this one felt more familiar, especially as we were learning some of the mantras and were able to recognize several of the words that were spoken.
After puja, there was a special dinner, and even though I can’t remember exactly what it was, I do believe that paneer was involved. Then, we shot off fireworks and danced for the rest of the night, which only lasted until around ten because yoga teacher training is exhausting and we had to be up early the next morning for our regular routine.
Still, I went to bed that night with a smile on my face feeling grateful for my truly authentic cultural experience. The staff helped give us the education behind the holiday, allowed us to participate in all details and the preparation, and immersed us in their holiday, making us feel more like family than students. This night really bonded us all together and made my time in India that much more unforgettable.