Lights, gods, and a lot of explosions: our experience celebrating Diwali in Chennai, India, also known as Madras. Includes plenty of photos and tips for travelers that want to celebrate Diwali in Chennai.
An explosion blinds my eyes with white-hot light. Crackling noises deafen my ears. I cover my mouth with a scarf to protect it from the toxic smoke billowing around me, but I’m still being pelted with bits of blackened debris. The aftermath of the blasts hit me in the face, and I can feel them rippling across my skin and hair. The air is hot, the sky is dark, and there are people running everywhere.
You must be wondering where we are. Is this a scene from our time in Afghanistan?
Far from. This is Diwali, the Hindu festival of light.
Celebrating Diwali in Chennai, India
We’re celebrating in Chennai, also known as Madras, a city on the southeastern coast of India. Our friend, Ajay, and his family have taken us in for the holiday, ensuring we get the full-on Diwali experience.
Ajay’s mother tells us the story behind Diwali in Tamil Nadu is different from other places in India. Here, Diwali celebrates the god Krishna defeating the evil demon Narakasura. In other regions, it’s a celebration of a prince named Rama rescuing his wife, Sita, from the evil demon king Ravana.
Whatever the story, it’s about a good guy killing a bad guy/good triumphing over evil/light beating dark. Simple enough, right?
People used to mark the holiday by setting out a plethora of lanterns and lights. But, as with many holidays, celebrations evolved over time. In the 1940s an entrepreneurial pair of Indian businessmen popularized the use of fireworks during Diwali, with some toxic results. In recent decades, capitalism gripped the holiday, filling the airwaves with endless advertisements of Diwali sales.
Thus the Diwali of today revolves around several things: spending time with family, buying gifts, and setting off a shit ton of explosives.
Enter the war zone
The evening of Diwali, we drive through the thick of the chaos to a family’s apartment near the Parthasarathy temple, one of the oldest temples in Chennai. The roads are congested with people, some armed with fireworks, others trying to avoid getting blasted by said fireworks. Auto rickshaws dart through the smoke and masses with relative grace, while we’re forced to stop and leave the car at the edge of the fray. As we exit the safety of the car, everyone begins to cough, but we can’t help but grin at the festively chaotic atmosphere.
The rooftop of the apartment building is our lookout for the night, a place to admire the show without fear of having our toes blasted off. I sit with Ajay and some of his young cousins, oohing and aaaahing the bursts of light above and below us while we wait for the area’s main attraction: the appearance of a god.
The moment arrives during dinner. The youngest cousin, sent down to check the street for activity, comes sprinting back up the steps.
“Come, come, it’s here!” she cries, before making a quick exit once more. Half-finished dosas are left, forgotten, while I absent-mindedly wipe my chutney-coated hands on my kurta as we all dash downstairs.
Heading to Chennai? Check our backpacking in South India budget report!
The god has arrived
Somehow, the street sides are even more filled with people. Everyone is peering down the street, so this being India, I push my way to the front of the crowd so I can see, too.
A group of men in crisp white dhoti, south Indian sarongs, are clustered in the street. They’re preceded by women crouched low, sweeping heaping mounds of charred fireworks from the streets to clear the way. Some of the men are carrying drums, beating out a rhythm as other men walk forward bearing gold-plated palanquins on their shoulders.
The main palanquin bears the likeness of Parthasarathy, a form of the Hindu god Vishnu. According to the Mahabharata, one of the most famous Indian epic tales, Vishnu, in his form known as Krishna, once drove the chariot for Arjuna, a famous Indian warrior. He piloted the chariot in one of the most epic battles in Indian history, the Kurukshetra War, which lasted 18 days. It’s said that Parthasarathy’s face was filled with arrows, leaving him pocked with many scars. The golden statue’s face is black and dark, a testament to the many wounds Parthasarathy received during the battle.
(Confused? It’s okay. I was, too. The easy version: important Hindu god drove a chariot for important Indian dude and got his face mussed in the process.)
It’s from this that the name “Parthasarathy” emerged: it means “charioteer of Arjuna” in Sanskrit. And it’s this god’s statue that is standing before me.
Gifts for the god
Because they are carrying the likeness of a god, all of the men are barefoot, as are the onlookers. Ajay prods me and says it’s wildly inappropriate to wear shoes before a god, so I quickly stuff my sandals in a nook somewhere and dive into the crowds around the procession.
The men are moving slowly, stopped at regular intervals by chains of firecrackers set off before them to honor Parthasarathy. While they stop and wait, onlookers venture forward. Some just want to snap photos on their phones, while others come forward to offer gifts of fruit, nuts, and money to the priests.
One man stands with a large golden piece shaped like an oversized goblet, which he uses to bless people that come before him. It’s meant to be the crown of Vishnu, and the act of touching it to people’s heads represents the god’s feet touching their heads. I come to him and bow, and he places the golden goblet on my head. Luckily, Vishnu’s feet don’t smell too bad. I back away with my hands together—my soul has been saved.
Fireworks are still exploding at a rapidfire pace, and the smoke still chokes the air, but within the procession, there’s a solemn, reverent feel, bringing order to the chaos. They wait patiently after every few steps so that more people may come and give offerings, then start up a tune on their instruments to signal it’s time for people to move out of the way. Their aim is to do a loop around the block, but it’s already 9 in the evening, and after one hour they’ve only covered half of one street.
Abandoning the idea of watching the whole procession, I walk gingerly back to the safety of the apartment, bare feet brushing through mounds of grimy firecracker wrappers. I’m sticky with sweat and my hair is greased with smog and smoke. But that hardly matters—I’m also wide-eyed with wonder.
India really is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Want to celebrate Diwali in Chennai (Madras)?
- When is Diwali? The date is based on the lunar cycle, so it changes every year. You can find out when Diwali is here.
- In some parts of the country, Diwali lasts 5 days. In Chennai, most of the action happens over one day, though there will be plenty of unofficial fireworks before and after.
- You can catch the godly action in the area around the Parthasarathy temple. The god appeared around 20:30, and the ceremony will go on for quite a while.
- If a divine clusterfuck isn’t your thing, head to the beaches for a bit more space. Marina Beach or the beach at Besant Nagar are good options.
- Fireworks will be on sale everywhere in the days leading up to the holiday. However, do consider how many fireworks you set off. Lots of fireworks = lots of pollution, and it’s not pleasant.
- Be sure to book transportation into and out of the city far in advance. Train tickets go especially fast!
Where to stay in Chennai, India
Accommodation goes fast around Diwali, so be sure to book in advance! If you’re still looking for accommodation, consider:
- Budget: Red Lollipop Hostel or Elements Hostel
- Mid-range: Springhaven City Center or Avenue 11 Boutique Residences
- Luxury: ITC Grand Chola or The Leela Palace
Yay transparency! The links to accommodation are affiliate links. If you book a stay using these links, we’ll make a small amount of money at no extra cost to you. Think of it as a way of supporting our blog! Never fear, we’d never recommend anything terrible. Who do you think we are?