The first day of Diwali is called Dhanteras or Dhantryaodashi, (dhan- wealth and theras-
thrayodashi-13). It is the thirteenth day of the waning lunar cycle in the month of Ashwin or Aippasi (Tamizh month). This day is important for businesses, traders and merchants in North India, Maharashtra and Gujerat.
The Story behind the festival
The legend associated with Dhanteras is about the sixteen-year-old son of King Hima who according to his horoscope, was doomed to die on the fourth day after his marriage by snakebite. On that day, his anxious young bride lit many lamps all over the place and did not allow her husband to sleep. She took out all her gold and precious gemmed ornaments, gold and silver coins and piled them in a heap at the entrance of her husband’s room. She told stories and sang songs throughout the night.
When Yama-the god of death, arrived as a serpent, the bright dazzle of the brilliant lights blinded his eyes and he could not enter the prince’s chamber. He climbed on to the heap of ornaments and coins and sat there the whole night listening to the melodious songs. In the morning he went away quietly and thus the intelligent wife had saved her husband from Yama’s noose. So Dhanteras is also known as ‘Yamadeepdaan’ day and lamps are left burning throughout the night as a form of reverence to Yama. It is also the night when people light lamps and float them down a river in memory of their ancestors.
According to another legend, when the Gods and demons churned the milky ocean for Amrita or nectar that would give them immortality, Dhanvantari, the physician of the Gods and an incarnation of Lord Vishnu emerged from the ocean carrying a kalash or pot of Amrith on the day of Dhanteras. Dhanvantarai is always depicted with the amrith kalash in his hand.
The day is celebrated by renovating and decorating houses and business premises. Entrances are decorated with colourful designs of Rangoli/kolams to welcome Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity. To help her find her way into the premises and to show how eagerly the family is awaiting her arrival, small footprints are drawn with rice flour and vermilion powder. Lamps are kept burning all through the night.
Prayers are offered to Goddess Lakshmi on Dhanteras in her form as an owl to provide prosperity and well being. According to custom, precious metals like gold and silver are bought on this day. In modern times many people buy a new cooking vessel as well for Annam (food) is also Lakshmi representing well-being. The metals are an augury of good luck.
Diwali purchases are often done only on this day. The first lamps are lit and paper lanterns with festoons are strung up to announce the arrival of Diwali. All family members arrive at ancestral homes.
Lakshmi Puja is performed in the evening. Tiny earthen diyas are lit to drive away shadows of evil spirits. Bhajans/devotional songs in praise of Goddess Lakshmi are sung in chorus to welcome her.
Naivedya of traditional sweets like kheer/payasam, laddus, jalebis and pedas are offered to the Goddess. In Maharashtra, dry coriander seeds are lightly pounded and mixed with jaggery and offered to Lakshmi.
In villages, cattle is adorned and worshiped by farmers, their main source of income. In south India, cows, considered to be an incarnation of Lakshmi, are decorated and offered special prasadam.
Crackers, candles, diyas, clay figures of Lord Ganesha and Goddess Lakshmi, earthenware katoris and kulris (cups and tumblers), toys and other objects needed to celebrate Diwali are purchased on Dhanteras.
Business people buy and keep ready new account books for the Lakshmi puja performed on Diwali, their New Year’s day. A girl child born on Dhanteras day is considered to be the arrival of Goddess Lakshmi into the home and considered very lucky in North India.
Dhanteras is not only about praying for material wealth and prosperity. It is a time to develop spiritual equanimity and family bonding.