When we think of Deepavali (Diwali), we often think of indulgence. The common picture for many of us is of an overload of sweets, goodies and crackers, that we take days or even weeks to recover from.
However, if we return to the traditional principles of Ayurveda, we see that Deepavali is rooted in ancient traditions of wellness, when celebrated the traditional way.
Coping with changing seasons
One of the hallmarks of Ayurveda is its holistic focus on the individual, his or her habits and the environment as contributors of good or ill health. Thus, the season or time of year is an important factor to take into account, as each season brings its own changes to the body’s mechanisms and the balance of Doshas or the physiological factors.
Deepavali is celebrated during Sharad Ritu (autumn season), between mid-September and mid-November, the autumnal season that comes at the end of the monsoons. This season marks the end of the wet, rainy season and is a sunny and dry interlude before winter sets in.
Oil baths, mixture and ghee sweets
While the reason for celebrating Diwali vary across the country, several very similar practices are followed across India. Thus, it is traditional to wake up before dawn, apply heated sesame oil on the head and body (along with ubtan powder in some parts of India), have a hot bath, and wear new clothes. Further, a mix of Diwali sweets like laddoos, Mysore pak, and adhirasam and Diwali snacks like mixture (containing sev, ribbon pakoda, boondi, groundnuts, curry leaves, etc), chakli, murukku, chivda and so on are eaten early in the day.
All of these practices are geared towards the weather conditions of the season. Given that this is a period of dry, sunny, and relatively warm weather, Ayurveda says that the body experiences an increase in Pitta during this season.
Sesame oil helps reduce the Vata and Kapha doshas in the body and protects the skin from dryness, applying sesame oil before the sun rises prevents the increase of Pitta. Similarly, ubtan powder (a mixture of besan, turmeric and sandalwood) mixed with sesame paste, oil and milk, helps in exfoliating the skin, making it soft, smooth and healthy.
While it is generally a good practice to avoid foods higher in fats, particularly in the early part of the day, the season’s increase in pitta results in better digestion and increased hunger. That is why sweets are made with cane sugar and jaggery, and cooked in ghee, in order to balance the increased Pitta. And that’s why Diwali snacks are made of flour such as jowar, bajra and rice flour, along with ground pulses that are Madhura (sweet) and Kashaya (astringent), as they are perfect for balancing out Pitta.
The magic of Deepavali marundhu/leghiyam
One of the most interesting dietary specialties of the festival of lights is the Deepavali leghiyam/marundhu. Eaten along with the variety of sweets and snacks, the marundhu is made up of a mix of coriander powder, carom seeds (ajwain), black pepper, nutmeg (jathikai), dry ginger, jaggery and ghee. This prolific mix of spices provides the body with the whole range of important tastes and helps digest all of the heavy food eaten during the festival. Again, the use of jaggery and ghee helps balance the increased pitta.
Losing the value of traditions
Many of the traditional practices associated with celebrating Diwali were first conceived based on their contributions to health and wellness. For instance, Ayurveda tells us that regular oil massages and baths are important because they help reduce Jara (ageing), Shrama (exhaustion) and Vata. While daily or weekly oil baths may have become too inconvenient, special occasions like Deepavali remain an important reminder to maintain this healthy habit.
On the food front, Deepavali sweets and snacks were often made at home using fresh ingredients and ghee. However, for reasons of cost and convenience, ghee has now largely been replaced with vegetable oils, which takes away the value of these dishes. And buying Diwali sweets and savoury Diwali snacks from stores is another problematic habit, as the nutritional value of these foods is lost.
A festival is an opportunity to meet our family, eat good food and relax, but it can also be a timely reminder for us to be healthy. And given Deepavali traditions’ Ayurvedic roots, it can be more than just about Diwali lights and Diwali sweets – it can also be about good health. And it’s simple! This Deepavali, wake up early, have an oil bath with sesame oil and ubtan powder. And if you also manage to make the Deepavali leghiyam at home (it really isn’t that difficult, you must try it), then you would have pulled off a perfect, healthy festival day.
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