Changing face of Diwali: Less crackers, lesser sweets – how the mega Indian festival is changing

From healthier indulgences and green crackers to innovative lights and a surge in vacations, the festivities have undergone a quiet metamorphosis over the years.

The changing face of Diwali

Festive preparations begin in most Indian homes long before Diwali approaches. From cleaning and sprucing up the house to whipping up all kinds of sweet indulgences, it’s the time for new beginnings and binge-eating. Mindless shopping sprees are not uncommon either, what with all the bumper discounts on offer. In short, Diwali is the time to bid a momentary adieu to self-control and the monies, and just give in to the festive cheer.

But even as some of these aspects have remained unchanged over the years, a quiet change has been brewing in some other aspects. In place of the traditional sugary, ghee-laden box of laddoos, for instance, we now have the sugar-free and healthier version. Festive lights have also gotten transformed from earthen diyas to Chinese lanterns and even Bluetooth-enabled lamps that double up as speakers. As far as shopping is concerned, more and more people are now increasingly choosing to ditch that trip to the mall to shop online as e-commerce platforms roll out great discounts.

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Bursting crackers, too, which has long been synonymous with the festival, has come under fire (pun intended) in recent years with rising pollution levels. It’s no surprise then that the Supreme Court outrightly banned the sale of firecrackers in Delhi last year, while this year, it has given the nod to the sale of ‘green’ firecrackers that are considered to be less polluting, as they do not contain harmful chemicals.

While the alarming level of pollution does call for desperate measures to be taken, the travel and hotel industries have little to fret about, as people are now increasingly choosing to travel to far-off locations during the festive season to spend some quiet time away from the noise and pollution that usually engulf cities as Diwali approaches.

Here, we take a look at the different ways the celebration of the festival has undergone a metamorphosis over the years…

Calculated sugar rush

From eating and cooking mithai to gifting it, sweets are an ubiquitous part of festivities in India. But with rising health-consciousness, people are now slowly turning away from the traditional mithai box. Gulab jamun and barfi have become passé. And why not? If traditional cooking can be replaced with concepts of fusion and modern cooking, think of the transformation that can bring to our favourite piece of sweet sin. From sugar-free kalakand to flaxseed laddoos, there is no dearth of alternatives now when it comes to satiating your sugar rush.

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Walk into any outlet of Gopal Sweets, a popular chain across Punjab, in fact, and you will see that the first counter is one offering at least 10 varieties of baklava. Various chocolate and dry-fruit concoctions tempt you next, while the rasmalai, rasgullas and gulab jamuns are the backbenchers.

“While the fad of healthy eating is definitely catching up, people are also becoming increasingly conscious of the source of the ingredients… like if there’s a wholewheat biscuit pack, they want to know where the wheat came from,” says Gayatri Pischoria, who operates a catering business in Amritsar.

The transformation does not end at being just health-conscious.

Today, there is a rising influx of figs, dates, passion fruit, etc, in desserts, which customers seem to love.

“We have been using things like figs and dates to make barfi for more than a decade now. They have no sugar and need no substitutes as well,” says Anuj Goyal, director of Mumbai-based Brijwasi Sweets.

Laurent-Charles Samandari, managing director, L’Opéra, a bakery house specialising in French products in India, said they are seeing a great demand for pralines and have introduced several new flavours—from sweet-scented pecan pralines to exotic passion fruit ones.

As per Pischoria, her bestsellers this season have been flaxseed laddoos, fig and apple jam, chocolate-filled Amritsari aam papad and the likes. “People are also loving coffee macaroons, where the coffee comes from the southern parts of India,” Pischoria adds.

Festive travel on rise

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Remember the time when everybody living far from home would plan their Diwali holidays well in advance, buying gifts galore to take back home? Surprisingly, that facet of the festival is undergoing transformation as well. In light of rising pollution levels, Diwali is no more the festival of homecoming, especially in metro cities like Delhi. People instead plan vacations and travel outside their cities to escape the noise and frenzy during Diwali.

According to travel and tour operator Cox & Kings, the demand for international travel destinations around Diwali this year has surged by 25%, while domestic travel is experiencing a 20% rise compared to the same period last year. Travel site TripAdvisor has also revealed that November 6-18 is being considered as the “best time” to travel, as per their estimates. The reasons for this are manifold. Besides the pollution factor, there’s also the fact that people today have a lot of disposable income, which they are preferring to spend on travel. “The trend of holidaying during the festive season is flourishing year-on-year. It’s considered as a great time for family vacations, as kids have holidays during this time. Many educational institutes, too, plan their educational tours during the Diwali vacations, so that students don’t have to miss academics,” says Karan Anand, head, relationships, Cox & Kings. “Since Diwali is falling in the middle of the week this year, there are chances of people taking long weekend holidays,” he adds.

Not surprisingly, hotel and travel companies are leaving no stone unturned to tap the burgeoning demand. “Festive/companion offers, discounted airfare, gift cards and special packages by hotels are further encouraging travellers to make the most of the festive season,” says Neetu Singh, chief executive officer, Ezeego1, an online travel portal, which has recorded 30% growth in bookings this year in the Diwali week compared to last year. “We are witnessing a surge in the number of last-minute bookings,” Singh adds.

As for the locations, the most popular international destinations remain Cambodia, Macau, Vietnam and Turkey, says Anand. The new additions, says Singh, are Qatar and Oman in the short-haul market (short vacations). On the domestic front, Dalhousie, Nainital, Mussoorie, Ooty and Sikkim are the most popular hotspots for people looking for some quiet and peace without burning a hole in their pockets.

New adda for card parties

Just like mornings are incomplete for many without a hot cup of tea, so is a Diwali gathering without a couple of decks of cards and a few rupee bills. Teen patti, Muflis, AK47, Blackjack are just a few variants of the umpteen card games played amid cheers of friends and family. The game of poker is an all-time favourite too. This is perhaps the only facet of Diwali that will always be popular, as it’s something that people of all age groups can play at any given time, and yet never get bored.

The only aspect that has changed over the years, however, is the choice of location. Previously, people would gather at one of their mate’s home and get the ball rolling. Of late, though, the trend of booking hotel rooms to host card parties is gathering pace. It’s not surprising, given that we are living in a world of convenience and do not wish to go through the pain of preparing savouries for guests and making arrangements for everyone’s stay in case the party goes on till the wee hours.

After all, what is Diwali if not a time to sit back and relax!

Bluetooth lights take over DIYAS

Come Diwali and people start hunting for the most decorative set of lights to adorn their abodes.

There used to be a time when people would buy diyas and candles of all shapes and sizes to illuminate their homes. Then came the era of Chinese lights—appealing, but feeble. What followed was a plethora of options for consumers to choose from—disco lights that can send one in a trance with their variations, LED bulbs that consume less power but shine the brightest, and rope lights that look minimalist and classy.

Then there are DIY options for those who seek innovation and creativity—think paper lanterns (which can be painted or decorated as one likes), glass bottles and seashells.

The latest addition are Bluetooth-enabled lights that also work as speakers. Imagine being seated in a room decorated with beautiful lights while grooving to the beats of your favourite music, with a card party going on in full swing. You can create your own version of victory dance accompanied by twinkling lights and your choice of music!

Crackers: gone up in smoke

There used to be a time when crackers were the highlight of Diwali. Markets could be seen in every city and town with rows and rows of cracker stalls in the run-up to the festival. The competition was for crackers with the biggest and longest-lasting burst of light. Every year threw up some new kind of innovation in crackers and children and adults alike made a beeline for it.

Since the past couple of years, however, the Delhi-NCR region, especially, has received a lot of flak owing to heightened pollution levels and smog during the Diwali season. Environmentalists, too, have long been warning people about the ill-effects of bursting crackers. The SC has, however, permitted the sale of green crackers this year. “Even though there is a petition for the complete ban on firecrackers, things don’t seem to be going that way. In spite of a partial ban on firecrackers last year, the Delhi smog was one of the most grievous disasters we had to face,” says Rohit Bansal, director, Pure Logic Labs, a startup, which recently launched a first-of-its-kind motorised air mask.

Bansal is right. Despite the ban on crackers last year, Delhi recorded 113 µg/m3 of daily average PM 2.5 levels (PM 2.5 are the fine, inhalable particles that lodge deep in the lungs, where they can enter the bloodstream, posing the most dire threat to humans), according to an estimate by Berkeley Earth (an independent non-profit organisation that focuses on land temperature data analysis for climatic conditions)—this was 1000% higher than the World Health Organization-recommended limit of 10 µg/m3.

What makes matters worse is that Diwali falls typically at the onset of winter every year, clashing with the stubble-burning season (the deliberate practice of setting straw stubble, which remains after wheat and other grains have been harvested, on fire) in Punjab and Haryana. This further aggravates the smog situation in Delhi-NCR. According to government thinktank NITI Aayog, crop-burning accounts for 25% of the air pollution in the capital every year, affecting around 29 million people. The practice has, hence, been widely criticised, even as farmers have cited lack of alternatives to stubble-burning, the cheapest way to prepare the fields for next season’s plantation.

“Since the air is cooler this time of the year, the temperature inversion keeps the smoke/haze compressed closer to the ground, where we breathe. Usually, the cocktail of pollutants is thick enough to block out the sun, which then blocks out the wind. Hence, residents of Delhi get trapped in a gas chamber,” says Jai Dhar Gupta, founder, Nirvana Being, a startup that offers a range of premium quality masks and other anti-pollution products.

While the government and Supreme Court might continue to levy stricter norms on the bursting of crackers and advocate the use of compressed natural gas in vehicles, the onus eventually lies on the public to make responsible choices for their own well-being. “Residents must understand how their actions affect their health and that they must change their behaviour to be part of the solution. We already know what the major sources of emissions are. All we need to do is go after those sources with a vengeance,” says Gupta.

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