Each year as Diwali approaches, certain streets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi undergo something of a transformation. In Bur Dubai and Karama in particular, this begins gradually, a week or so before the festival begins. By the time the sun sets this evening, practically every hotel and apartment building will be lit up with a chaotic, twinkling mass of multicoloured lights.
Known as the festival of light, Diwali or Deepavali (row of lights) is celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, but the legends associated with the event vary from region to region. Some celebrate the return of Lord Rama and his wife, Sita, to Rama's kingdom after 14 years of exile; others praise Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity; while in Bengal, people offer thanks to the goddess Kali. Despite these differences, the overriding message remains the same: Diwali marks the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness, hence the tradition for lighting earthenware oil lamps, known as diyas.
Darshini Govindaraju was born and brought up in Malaysia, but her father is from Ramanathapuram, in the south of India, which means that for her, Deepavali commemorates the killing of the evil demon Narakasura by Lord Krishna.
She says that during her three years spent living in Bur Dubai, the annually appearing festive lights were a real anchor: "You can become so wrapped up in your own work world, but when you see those lights, you end up smiling to yourself and memories of home run through your mind. Bur Dubai in many ways kept me rooted - it reminded me of where I belong."
For all involved, the emphasis during the five-day festival is on prayer, spending time with family and friends, fireworks, the exchange of gifts and, of course, feasting.
Many of Govindaraju's memories of Deepavalis past are interwoven with tales of food and family. "When I was growing up, we always had an open-house concept, often cooking for 150-odd people, who would arrive anytime between 9am and midnight," she says.
"On the day itself, we would wake up at 4am to have an oil bath, before heading to the temple. After that, it was back to Granny's to set up the buffet line, spread coloured rice over the floor and decorate the house. Then the entertaining of friends and family would really begin."
If Diwali is most synonymous with bright lights, then mithais (sweets) also play an integral role. Garima Arora is originally from Mumbai and has been living in Dubai for the past seven months. "Food is an inherent part of all celebrations and festivals in India, be it weddings, birthdays or religious occasions," she explains, before adding that "it is during Diwali that the sweet tooth goes into overdrive and traditional Indian sweets like ladoos and pedas are sold in their tons. This is mainly because it is considered auspicious to begin all religious activities with a sweet offering to god, but at the end of the day it's holiday season and people also enjoy eating sugar."
This opinion is seconded by Krishnakumar Sankaran, the owner of Aryass Gourmet Veg, a chain of vegetarian restaurants specialising in south Indian cooking, with locations in Dubai and Sharjah. He says: "Diwali is a festival that is all about sweets. It is a joyful time for people to gather together and in the Hindu calendar, it marks the start of the new year. Food plays a very important role in the celebrations; Diwali without sweets and savouries cannot be imagined!"
Aryass Gourmet Veg offers a range of handmade, traditional sweets throughout the year, but Sankaran says that in the lead-up to Diwali, sales figures increase dramatically, from approximately 55kg a day to 250kg. In the Bur Dubai outlet at the moment, display cabinets are piled high with various treats: bite-sized pieces of barfi (a sort of fudge) decorated with silver leaf, coils of jalebi (fried batter made from flour and yogurt and soaked in sugar syrup), pedas (dough made from sweet, thickened milk) dusted with crushed pistachios and halwa (a dense sweet made from milk and ghee) studded with fruit. Prices for the sweet selection boxes start at Dh27.