25 November 2007
As previously mentioned, Singapore is a city of Autumn festivals. The first was Mid-Autumn Festival (or, Mooncake Festival or Lantern Festival), in October. The second of these is Hari Raya Puasa, a Muslim celebration marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. It is a day of prayer and celebration, as celebrants will attend the Eid prayer in the morning, often followed by a visit to loved ones graves for cleaning and to recite chapters and prayers from the Koran. The rest of the day is spent in celebration, visiting friends and family and welcoming visitors. It is a festive occasion, especially for the children, who receive token sums of money known as duit raya from their parents. Traditional Malay dress is worn, baju Melayu for the men and baju kurung or baju kebaya for the women. It is a very special day for Singapore's Malay community. Unfortunately, it coincided with my visit to Hong Kong this year, so I was unable to see any of the festivities.
The Indian community celebrates in Autumn, as well. Deepavali (or Diwali, as it is known in northern India) is the Festival of Lights, observed by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs (it is celebrated in Nepal as well, known as Tihar, or Swanti). There are several legends associated with the festival, mostly related to the triumph of light over darkness. For Hindus in northern India, Diwali celebrates the homecoming of King Rama after a 14 year exile. The people of Ayodhya, his capital, welcomed him home with rows of lighted lamps. For southern Hindus, Deepavali celebrates Lord Krishna's victory over the demon Narakasura. For Jainism, the festival marks the nirvana of Lord Mahavira. And Sikhs celebrate the release of the Sixth Guru - Guru Hargobind Ji - from imprisonment, along with 52 Hindu Kings. Today, the festival is a national holiday in India (and Singapore) and celebrated regardless of faith.
As an aside, the U.S. sitcom "The Office" featured Deepavali/Diwali in an episode last season, complete with an Adam Sandler-esque song describing the festival, as sung by Steve Carell. It may not be the best way to learn about the celebration, but it's an enjoyable starting point.
To celebrate, Little India lights up like Christmas (which isn't completely accurate, given how much Singapore actually lights up for Christmas. Which is a lot.). Serangoon Road, the north-south road cutting through the heart of the district, is beautifully colored in purple and gold lights, and the entire area buzzes with more energy than usual. And usual is pretty exciting. It really is pretty.
I was lucky to get to experience a celebration first-hand. An Indian colleague invited me and other co-workers to join her in a Deepavali dinner at her favorite restaurant. She, like the restaurant, is vegeterian, so I was in store for a treat. The night was great. It included a powerpoint presentation on the history of Deepavali by her 9 year old daughter and an out-loud reading of a children's story by a colleague's 5 year old son, who insisted that several of us get up and play act the parts of the characters in the book. The food was wonderful, as well. We had dishes from all different regions of India, including those on the Chinese border, which are mixtures of Indian and Chinese style food. My favorite two were Chilli Gobi and Gobi Manchurian. Gobi is cauliflower. I had no idea what you could do with this vegetable! Chilli Gobi is a wonderful dish with very spicy chillies. In fact, my colleague's daughter still talks about my chilli eating prowess. Gobi Manchurian is cauliflower in a sweet and sour sauce, one of the Indian/Chinese mixtures. I couldn't get enough! It was delicious, and a great way to celebrate a new festival to me. After the meal, it was out for a nice stroll through the lights on the way home.
So, Singapore really is a city of Autumn festivals. Both Hari Raya Puasa and Deepavali are national holidays, and businesses are closed. It has been a great multi-cultural education. But, apparently they save the best for last, as Singapore is already alight for Christmas. Granted, we start a bit later here than in the States, but the city is aglow in Christmas decorations, anchored by the Christmas in the Tropics festival running from Orchard Road to Marine Parade, two major commercial districts in town. It is a bit odd, as it is 88 degrees and 88 percent humidity every day, but Christmas songs and decorations fill the air. I'll write more on that later.