The Loudest Light

AIF Clinton Fellows joined co-Fellow Shruti Manian's family for Diwali celebrations in Mumbai, Maharashtra. From left: Julia Wallin, Indu Chelliah, Raghav Anand, and Shruti Manian. Photo and caption by Ilana Millner
AIF Clinton Fellows  Julia Wallin (left), Indu Chelliah (center), and Raghav Anand (third from left) joined co-Fellow Shruti Manian (right) and her family for Diwali celebrations in Mumbai, Maharashtra. Photo by Ilana Millner

Ah, Diwali! Each year around the end of October or early November, Hindus and Jains around the world celebrate this grand festival of lights. On the same day, Sikhs around the world also celebrate a festival of lights known as Bandi Chhor Divas. Both occasions are joyous; families generally clean their houses, perform puja, make colorful rangoli patterns, and gather in their finest new clothes to eat mithai, play card games, and set off innumerable firecrackers.

The holiday varies by region, both in timing and in tradition. For example, South India celebrates Diwali one day earlier than the North; this year, South India celebrated Diwali on October 22nd and North India celebrated on the 23rd. And while most communities across the county share in the traditions of making rangoli patterns out of colored flour and setting off firecrackers, areas like Darjeeling have their own unique ways of celebrating the holiday. One of Darjeeling’s special traditions is that of caroling: during Diwali, boys and girls divide into groups and travel from door to door in their neighborhoods, singing and dancing. The girls sing “bhailo”—one type of traditional song—while the boys sing “Deusi.” Their neighbors reward them with sweets and money for their performances.

AIF Clinton Fellow Miriam Hartmann is living in Darjeeling and spent the Diwali holiday celebrating with her colleague’s family. She documented the occasion, snapping photos of caroling (below), bhai tikka day, and rangoli art (see end of post).

Girls caroling at houses. Darjeeling, West Bengal. Photo and caption by Miriam Hartmann
Girls caroling at houses. Darjeeling, West Bengal. Photo and caption by Miriam Hartmann

AIF Clinton Fellow Sarah Manchanda also has photos to share from her Bandi Chhor Divas celebrations. She writes: “I celebrated Diwali with my extended family in Bangalore. We started the night by going to the largest gurudwara [a Sikh space of worship] in the city and each lighting a candle. It’s a tradition my family has had for years!”

Writes AIF Clinton Fellow Sarah Manchanda: "I celebrated Diwali with my extended family in Bangalore. We started the night by going to the largest gurudwara in the city and each lighting a candle. It's a tradition my family has had for years!" Ulsoor Gurudwara, Bangalore, Karnataka. Photo by Sarah Manchanda
Ulsoor Gurudwara, Bangalore, Karnataka. Photo by Sarah Manchanda (pictured here)

Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with the holiday; I love the beautiful diyas and lanterns, and relish the joy their light always brings to the cities I’ve lived in. However, the firecrackers that go hand-in-hand with these gorgeous, glimmering displays have been rattling me for weeks. The small maidan near my house has been the scene of countless explosions—each cracker detonated by giggling children, and on occasion, giggling adults. The noise knows no bounds; crackers are just as likely to wake me from a 3am slumber, as they are to jolt me out of concentration as I work at my desk in the afternoon. According to The Times of India, “the maximum decibel level prescribed for residential areas is 55dB during the day and 45dB at night.” However, in Mumbai’s Prabhadevi neighborhood the noise level during the day on October 23 was recorded as 84.7dB.[1] Despite the fact that Diwali is officially over now, there are still plenty for fireworks scattered across the city and it seems it will be quite some time before the night goes (relatively) quiet again.

India is well known for its fireworks industry. Second only to China in volume of production, the Indian fireworks industry produces mainly for a domestic market. Sivakasi is a small town in Tamil Nadu that produces between seventy and ninety percent of India’s fireworks, and the industry is worth around 200,000 crores.[2] However, despite the success of these production houses in both Sivakasi and other small towns, many serious safety issues remain unaddressed. What some might consider to be the upside of the situation is the fact that having somewhat unregulated production, distribution, and use of firecrackers makes them cheap and readily available for purchase. However, the downside is that fireworks remain extremely dangerous explosives, and the lack of regulation and safety precautions inevitably leads to multiple injuries each Diwali season.

Another darker side to fireworks is the way they impact the already horrifying air quality in cities across India. During the Diwali season, pollution levels in Indian cities spike to dangerous levels. According to SAFAR (System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research), Delhi’s post-Diwali Respirable Suspended Particulate Matter (RSPM) measurement was 531 mg per cubic metre—more than five times higher than usual. This increase is likely to lead to respiratory issues for some city dwellers.[3]

Cars dodge firecrackers in Mumbai, Maharashtra. Photo and caption by Ilana Millner
Cars dodge firecrackers in Mumbai, Maharashtra. Photo and caption by Ilana Millner

I was very fortunate to celebrate this beautiful holiday with many of my co-Fellows, and I’m immensely grateful to Shruti Manian and her family for welcoming us into their home. The sweets were delicious, the view of the city and its exploding horizon was spectacular, and it was such a pleasure to listen to the laughter of children as it rose and faded like embers across the neighborhood. There is so much to love about Diwali, but I fear that the accompanying noise and air pollution has begun to cast a long shadow on the holiday. In shedding a little loud light on the health risks that modern celebrations pose to revelers, I hope we can work towards achieving a greater measure of the health, prosperity, and happiness that Diwali celebrates.

1  Pinto, Richa. “Diwali 2014: Prabhadevi, Worli noisier than in past 2 years, air quality at Bandra worse.” October 25, 2014.

2 Arockiara, J. “China calls: in Shivakasi dud Diwali looms.” August 26, 2014.

3 Perappadan, Bindu Shajan. “Diwali leaves denizens of Delhi gasping for breath.” October 25, 2014

Ilana is a second-year Fellow with a passion for multimedia storytelling, a love of Indian literature, a longstanding interest in public health awareness, and a dedication to promoting the rights of women and girls. As an undergraduate, Ilana produced UPenn's 2010 production of The Vagina Monologues and co-founded The Penn Monologues, an annual show written and performed by students, staff, and faculty. She continues to explore the interplay between personal and collective narratives in community development, and the power of storytelling and performance as catalysts for dialogue, growth, and empowerment.

Ilana's interest in public health is informed by her experience as a UPenn-Botswana Partnership Early Education Intern in Gaborone, Botswana, where she worked with children affected by HIV/AIDS. Additionally, her passion for education is rooted in her work as a 2010-2011 Fellow with The Modern Story in Hyderabad India, where she taught digital storytelling to 8th and 9th standard students in government schools.

Prior to joining AIF Ilana worked in Switzerland as a writer and editor for Urban-Think Tank and the Chair of Architecture and Urban Design at ETH ZÌ_rich. There, her research and editorial work focused on design and infrastructure in informal settlements around the world.

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