Divali, the great autumn festival of lights in India, was brought by Hindu immigrants to Trinidad during the 19th century.
For more than 100 years, this festival was confined to Hindu homes and temples within Hindu villages in Trinidad and Tobago.
It was not until 1966 that Divali became recognised as a national festival and was accorded the status of a national holiday by then prime minister Dr Eric Williams. The festival is celebrated in most districts in Trinidad, where people of different races and beliefs participate by lighting deyas.
The significance of light has always been important in ancient religions.
Ancient Chinese had their festival of lights. The Egyptians celebrated a festival of lights before the fourth century BC. The famous Greek writer Homer refers to a festival of lamps. All Saints Day is celebrated with candles, and followers of Islam celebrate Shab-l-barat with lights.
Divali is celebrated in the period of Kartik (October – November), and the Hindi word Deep or diya means a wick dipped in wax or oil, and vali is a ring or wreath. Divali means "wreath of light".
In the early days of indenture in Trinidad (1845-1917), Divali was not as important.
But by the late 19th century a few centres in Tunapuna had started organising community celebrations to commemorate Divali.
An 1897 report stated, "In many parts of the island, the Hindus celebrated the feast of Divali and all the houses and places of worship and business places were illuminated with tiny tapers and chirag (little earthen bowls filled with coconut oil with lighted cotton wicks). Plantain and banana trees were used in the decorations, lights were suspended from the leaves, arches were also erected to which the lights were affixed."
Also in the early days, properly baked deyas were not available locally because the kumhars (potters) had not started working on their chaks on a big scale. Many East Indians used the kernels of coconut, others with ordinary white clay, and some baked the deyas in the sun.
Eventually a man, whom history records as Lutchman, from Chase village in Central Trinidad began producing properly baked deyas on a commercial scale. And today thousands of deyas are produced in different parts of Trinidad, with Chase Village retaining the prestige of being the original home of baked deyas.
The raw material used in the production of deyas comes from mud pits in Carlson Field. Many residents make a comfortable living by either supplying the raw material or in the manufacture of deyas.
Curiously, Mahatma Gandhi, India's iconic political and ideological leader until his death in 1948, had expressed the view that too much money was spent on the celebration.
He said at the time, "If I had my way, I would have people do house cleaning and heart cleaning during the celebrations and provide innocent and instructive amusement for children during these days. Fireworks, I know, are the delight of children, but they are so because we elders have habituated them to fireworks. I do not know the African children wanting fireworks. They have dances instead. What can be healthier for children than sports and picnics and fresh and dried fruits instead of bazaar-made sweets. Children, both rich and poor, may also be trained to do house cleaning and whitewashing. There cannot be greater joy to men and women and young and old than that they think of and associate the poorest of the land with them in their holidays."
He said the lights of Divali were one way of knowing where the rich lived and where the poor suffered.
Divali, to many, represents a tradition interwoven with religion, history and philosophy, gaiety and dance, and moral principles that hold good for all time.