Immediately prior to the nine-day worship (Navaratri) of Durga, is the fortnight of ancestral worship or tarpan, called Peetri Paksha. It starts on the first day of moon in Ashvin and ends on the new moon day. Devout Hindus remember their ancestors and offer water and black sesame seed (til) with prayers for these fifteen days. The last day, the new moon day, is called Mahalaya.
The present day Durga Puja, celebrated in autumn, was introduced by Rama who worshipped Durga for nine days in order to defeat Ravana, the demon king of Shri Lanka. Ravana was slain on the tenth day which is now commemorated by the celebration of Dashera. Hence, in many parts of India, the story of Rama (Ramayana) is enacted as Ramlila for a month prior to Dashera and the effigy of Ravana is burnt on the Dashera day with the display of fireworks. Dashera is the occasion for Hindus to exchange presents and messages of good will. Apart from religious prayers, it is a season full of communal festivities.
Now let us hear the story of Durga. Long ago, there was a powerful demon king named Mahishashur (a demon who could take the shape of a buffalo). Mahishashur prayed to Brahma, one of the forms of supreme power, and sought his blessings to become immortal. Brahma said "Mahisha, once born, one must die. I cannot grant immortality." However, according to his desire, Brahma blessed Mahisha that he will be killed only by a woman. Mahishashur, with his extraordinary power, very soon drove away the gods from heaven and took over the throne of their king Indra. Finally, the gods joined their forces to create the goddess Durga. Durga later killed Mahishashur and brought peace back to earth. According to mythology, Durga was married to Shiva, the god of destruction. She has four children - Luxmi, the goddess of wealth, Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, Kartikeya, the god of war and the elephant-headed younger son Ganesh the god of success and remover of obstacles. Durga comes to the earth every year for ten days, along with her four children, to meet her people on the earth where she was born. The images are made of clay or paper maché and decorated with silk sarees, and jewels. Goddess Durga is depicted slaying the demon Mahishashur while riding a lion. On the back drop of the image is the picture of Shiva in the center surrounded by other gods and goddesses. The image is worshipped on the 7th, 8th, and 9th days of Navaratri. On the tenth day, or Dashera, the images are immersed into a river symbolizing the return of Durga and her children to Lord Shiva. On the tenth day begins Vijaya Dashami or Dashera. This is the day when Ram had slain Ravana. During Durga Puja, Hindus celebrate the victory of mother goddess Durga or divine forces, over Mahishashur, the evil forces.
Diwali follows Dashera. It is a spectacular religious festival held in late autumn. The celebration takes place on the darkest night of autumn, the new moon day (Amabashya), at the beginning of Kartika (October-November), eighteen days after the celebration of Dashera. Diwali means cluster of lights. On the Diwali day, rows of lamps decorate the houses and presents are exchanged.
Diwali, in the north of India, is associated with the coronation of Rama when he returned to Ayodhya (in Uttar Pradesh) after vanquishing the demon Ravana on the day of Dashera. Ram had been in exile for fourteen years and his followers were pleased to see his return to Ayodhya. They welcomed him by decorating their houses with lamps and rejoiced with the display of fireworks at night. Diwali is seen as a renewal of life. Houses are painted and new purchases are made at this time. In Maharasthra, Diwali is seen as a festival for warding off king Bali, the ruler of the underworld. In the western part of India, many Hindus believe that the souls of their ancestors come to visit their homes during the new moon day of Diwali. Lamps are lit to guide the way of the departed souls. In Gujrat, Diwali is associated mostly with the worship of Luxmi, the goddess of wealth. It is believed Luxmi on this day emerges to bring prosperity to the world. Luxmi puja in Gujrat lasts for five days which starts with Dhanterash, the worshipping of wealth. The fourth day is Gujratís New Years Day. Luxmi is believed to visit the homes that are well lit. So, families decorate their houses with light, flowers and paper chains. It is believed that lighting the new lamps will drive away evil and poverty from the world and heralds better times. In the eastern part of India, especially in West Bengal, Luxmi puja is celebrated five days after Dashera, on the full moon day (Purnima). On the following new moon day (Amabashya), coinciding with Diwali, goddess Kali is worshipped. Kali has a terrifying look. She destroys all evils. Lamps are lit in her honor, and in return, she promises a renewal of life and justice on earth.
Four days after Diwali is the brotherís day or Bhiadweej (or Bhaiphonta). Sisters put sandalwood mark on brotherís forehead praying to Yama, the god of death, to grant a long and prosperous life for her brother.