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Little India Deepavali Light-Up 2020
Photograph: Hit1912/Shutterstock

The ultimate guide to Deepavali in Singapore

All you need to know about the Festival of Lights which falls on November 12 2023 this year

Rachel Yohannan
Written by
Rachel Yohannan
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Deepavali, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an annual religious celebration for Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains in Singapore. For those still uninitiated, here's a comprehensive guide on everything you need to know about the occasion, from its origins, how it's celebrated, and where you can get in on the fanfare regardless of your background. We've also put together a little cheatsheet on how to be a good house guest if you've been invited to a friend's Deepavali open house for the first time.

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What is Deepavali?

Now, let’s get this cleared up once and for all – Deepavali is not ‘Indian new year’. Deepavali is the Hindu festival of lights, which celebrates the triumph of good over evil, or light over darkness. There are different tales surrounding the origins of Deepavali, but across the board, it involves the defeat of a demon by a deity. For South Indians, the story surrounds the battle between Lord Krishna and demon king Naraka, while for North Indians, it’s Lord Rama who defeated the evil Ravana.

When is Deepavali?
Photograph: Udayaditya Barua/Unsplash

When is Deepavali?

The exact date of Deepavali changes every year, as it is determined by the Hindu lunar calendar, which follows the position of the moon. Generally, Deepavali tends to take place in October, November, or December every year, and has been a gazetted Public Holiday in Singapore since 1929. This year, it falls on November 12 2023, a Sunday, so November 13 has been declared a Public Holiday in lieu of that.

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Who celebrates Deepavali?

In Singapore, Deepavali is most commonly known as a Hindu festival, though it is also celebrated by the Sikhs and Jains. As Deepavali is a religious festival rather than a cultural one, it is not celebrated by all Indians (as opposed to Chinese New Year, which is observed by all Chinese in Singapore regardless of spiritual belief). Remember that there are also non-Hindu Indians in Singapore – for example, Indian Christians – so do ensure you’re appropriately well-informed before wishing your Indian friends 'Happy Deepavali'.

How is Deepavali celebrated in Singapore?

Those who celebrate Deepavali start preparing for the occasion beforehand by shopping for new clothes, stocking up on festival snacks, and spring-cleaning. Homes are adorned with festive decorations, including clay lamps and kolam rangoli – intricate geometric floor art arrangements made from coloured uncooked rice. These days, some families might opt for kolam stickers instead of creating everything out of scratch using rice just because it’s easier. Usually done right outside the entrance of one’s house, kolam is meant to ward off evil and bring in good luck.

Devotees start off Deepavali morning with prayer rituals, followed by a visit to the temple. Then begins the visits to homes of friends and relatives, where there’s plenty of merrymaking over food.

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Deepavali celebrations in Little India and around Singapore
Photograph: Chee Boon Pin

Deepavali celebrations in Little India and around Singapore

Little India is most abuzz with activity in the weeks leading up to Deepavali, and the fanfare usually starts with the annual light-up stretching across its streets. 2023’s light-up started on September 30, and will run all the way until December 3. There’s also a Deepavali Food Bazaar this year that’s open from September 25 to November 11, with a plethora of booths hawking Indian delicacies.

Another highlight is a vibrant Deepavali Festival Village with stalls of traditional clothing, tidbits, and crafts, along with music and dance performances. The Festival Village will be open from 10am to 10pm from September 30 to November 9, but hours will be specially extended all the way till 1am on November 10 and 11.

You don’t have to travel all the way to Little India just to immerse yourself in the festive vibes, though. Various neighbourhoods across the island will also have their own Deepavali celebrations with performances, hands-on rangoli workshops, and other cultural immersion activities organised by their respective Community Clubs (CCs).

Diwali versus Deepavali – what’s the difference?

‘Deepavali’ and ‘Diwali’ basically refer to the same festival, and it’s all just a matter of vernacular. The former is the Tamil term, which is more widely used in Singapore due to the demographic of the Indian population here, of which a majority are of South Indian descent. ‘Diwali’, on the other hand, is a Hindi term more commonly used by North Indians. Both names originate from the Sanskrit phrase for ‘a row of lights’.

Deepavali visiting tips for first-timers

What to wear?

People are often dressed to the nines during Deepavali, so feel free to glam up, or just don something smart casual. Avoid wearing black though, as that’s deemed inauspicious for the occasion. It’s also perfectly fine to borrow a traditional Indian outfit like a saree or lehenga (women), or kurta set (men) from a friend if you’d like to go all out.

What to bring?

This is optional, but it’d be nice to bring along a little gift as a form of courtesy. If you’re planning on bringing food products, make sure to avoid anything that contains beef gelatin or other bovine-derived ingredients. In addition, some Hindus are vegetarians or abstain from alcohol – make sure you check with your friend on their family’s dietary restrictions before being too excited to gift them a bottle of wine. If all else fails, a box of chocolates or cookies would be a safe bet.

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What about Deepavali money packets?

Your Deepavali host might give out money packets to any children present, but as a guest, you’re not expected to do the same, so no pressure.

Other dos and dont’s

Be extra careful not to step on the kolam decorations at the front door, same goes for lamps that may be placed along the area. Be open to trying any food offered even if it’s unfamiliar to you – more often than not, the flavourful dishes and snacks served during Deepavali are painstakingly cooked by your host or their family members, so it’s only polite to try a little bit of everything. This goes without saying, but do also remain respectful of any deity statues placed around the house.

Get festive ready

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