Celebrating a Green Diwali

by Bhavani Prakash

Diwali or Deepavali is one of the most important festivals in the Hindu calendar and is celebrated in India and the world over with great pomp and fervour. People spring clean their homes, decorate them with beautiful rangoli (patterns made of coloured powder or rice), wear new clothes, offer prayers at home and at temples and greet each other with gifts and sweets. Children and grown ups alike, burst firecrackers in what has become a quintessential feature of the festival. It’s a vibrant, joyous occasion for one and all.

The purpose of Diwali is to spread light and remove our “inner darkness” or ignorance. This is usually symbolised by lighting of diyas (earthern lamps) in the house and outside. It’s a beautiful tradition. However, while customs and traditions must be maintained, we must also revisit some of things we may do rather ritualistically and weigh the kind of effects they may have on the environment.

Here are some ways to celebrate the festival in a more environmentally conscious way:

  1. Use less fireworks, or avoid them if possible . Fireworks like crackers, sparklers and pots spew out a wide range of toxic chemicals as shown below:

For a more detailed look at the kind of chemicals present in fireworks, and the health effects, here’s a website worth visiting.

Firecrackers create a lot of noise pollution and cause a lot of distress to animals and birds. Avoid them if possible or localise their use in a community to an open field. Do help to clear up the mess in your neighbourhood once the festivities are over. Luckily in Singapore, there are restrictions on noise pollution, so we are spared the noise of loud fireworks. But in India and other places, noise levels above 125 decibels may cause temporary or permanent deafness, increase in bloodpressure, or even heart attack.

Fireworks are non-biodegradable, and in places with poor waste management, they end up clogging up drains, with the residues of toxic chemicals entering streams and rivers.

Most of the fireworks in India are made using child labour. Children exposed to such heavy metals and chemicals often suffer in health.
Here is a video showing young children working at a factory which makes matchsticks and fireworks:

2. Distribute and consume sugary sweets in moderation. White sugar is excessively refined and bleached with sulphur dioxide, and additional refining is done using phosphoric acid or calcium hydroxide to give the pearly white crystal look. As molasses is black or dark brown in colour, the sugar refining industry uses as filters, bone char – a charcoal like substance made by burning cows bones at very high temperatures. Large scale sugar plantations extensively use pesticides and fertilisers and there is heavy pollution in the wastewater discharged from the production processes in refining factories.

Other alternatives to sugar include Fair Trade certified raw cane sugar, palm sugar, rock sugar, agave, molasses, maple syrup and honey. Fresh and dry fruits make excellent alternatives for the occasion instead of sweets with processed white sugars.

3. Avoid synthetic coloured powder for making rangoli designs, which can contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Instead use rice flour, plain sand, turmeric powder, coloured pulses, cereals and henna and dry flowers.

For dry powders you may use these:

GREEN: Mehendi or henna powder or powder from dried tulsi
RED: Grind dried petals of hibiscus or rose flowers
YELLOW: Grind dried petals of marigold or chrysanthemum flowers, or use turmeric powder
BLUE: Grind dried petals of jacaranda or blue hibiscus flowers

To increase the bulk to the above, you can add any flour such as chickpea flour(besan), wheat flour(atta or maida) or rice flour:

For wet colours, you can derive them in the following manner:

GREEN: Grind into a fine paste spinach, mint, coriander and dilute with water
RED: Soak pomegranate peels or red hibiscus petals in water overnight. Juice of tomatoes and carrots give an orange-red colour though they need to be strained and diluted
YELLOW: Boil turmeric in water to get a concentrate. Allow to cool and dilute as required. Alternatively, boil marigold or chrysanthemum petals in water, and leave overnight to cool.
MAGENTA: Grate beetroot and soak in water. To get a stronger colour, boil and allow to cool.
BROWN: Boil tea and/or coffee in water and strain
BLACK: Boil dried Amla(Indian Gooseberry) in an iron pot (kadai) and cool overnight. Dilute as necessary. Alternatively, grind black grapes, dilute and strain.

(Preparation ideas condensed from www.holi.org)

4. Refrain from excessive shopping and consumption. Many retailers discount items for Diwali and actively promote shopping and impulse purchases. Buy only what you need. Ultimately whatever you buy requires the use of precious natural resources.

5. Avoid the use of plastic or Styrofoam disposables . They are based on scarce petroleum resources and because they take almost a hundred years to decompose.  Use alternatives such as washable utensils, or biodegradable plates such as those made from the dried leaves of areca nut.

6. Moderate or do away with your purchase of gold which is a common custom during Diwali. I risk taking off the shine during the festive season by saying that production of gold is one of the most polluting of mining activities, ruining rivers, threatening wildlife and natural areas and in several cases, fuelling human conflict.

“In damage per ton of metal produced, nothing comes close to gold. Each ton of gold requires the processing of roughly 300,000 tons of ore – the equivalent of a small mountain. A cheap way to extract gold from ore is to use cyanide, which leaves behind toxic waste.  Cyanide is so toxic that a 2 percent cyanide solution will lead to death within 40 seconds.

In January 2000, a giant spill of 130 million liters of cyanide solution from a gold mine in Romania drained into the Tisza River and emptied into the Black Sea, killing one million fish in the Hungarian segment of the river alone. This is the worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl.

Another common mining technology uses mercury to extract gold from ore. Mercury accumulates in the environment, concentrating as it moves up the food chain. It was discharges of mercury into Japan’s Minamata Bay a generation ago that demonstrated the brain damage and birth defects this heavy metal can cause.  In the Amazon, gold miners release 200,000 pounds of mercury each year into the ecosystem. One teaspoon of mercury in a 25-acre lake can render fish unsafe for human consumption.

In South Africa, where most of the gold comes from underground, death in the mines is routine, claiming one life for each ton produced.”

(Source: Eco-Economy by Lester R. Brown)

For more information, look at NoDirtyGold.org .  As of now, I don’t know of any certifications in Asia that guarantee that retailers source their gold manufactured in an environmentally friendly way. So, when in doubt, restraint is a good idea.

With growing wealth, there is an increasing trend in Asia towards purchase of diamonds. There is no way of telling whether diamonds are sourced from conflict-free zones. A recent article points to supplies coming to India from Zimbabwe, which has a very poor human rights track record, and the challenges faced by the Kimberley Process to certify conflict free diamonds.

It does take a tough mindset sometimes, to go against tradition. I grew up looking forward to the fireworks during Diwali. It’s usually the most fun and enjoyable part of the festival. To many including me, Diwali without fireworks would be unthinkable. Similarly, it is easy to get carried away with the festivities, especially in the process of celebrating, by shopping for oneself or for others.

Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth is worshipped very devoutly during this festival. Does real Lakshmi come from all the goodies, gold and diamond jewellery that we bestow on our children, or does She come from the pure air, water, forests and soils that we leave as lasting legacies for future generations?

Between a few hours of enjoyment, a few years of vanity and preventing lasting damage to the environment, why don’t we choose the last? That’s the light of awareness we need to spread around us.

Wishing you a green Diwali, bringing you, your family and our Earth, abundance and prosperity!


A modified version of this article appears in the Indian Institute of Technology Alumni Association Singapore (IITAAS) brochure for their Annual Diwali gathering for 2010.  This article has been updated from the original one posted here on 26th October 2008.

Thanks to Sandipta Dhar and Kamayani Bali Mahabal for the link to the article on blood diamonds from Zimbabwe.


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Posted by on Nov 4 2010. Filed under Green Festivals. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Comments for “Celebrating a Green Diwali”

  1. [...] the universe and everything – EcoWalktheTalk: Celebrating a Green Diwali [Thanks Bhavani] – Chill Out: We all need these reminders once in a [...]

  2. [...] not see the country the inhabitants know.’ how far is this true for singapore? – EcoWalktheTalk: Celebrating a Green Diwali [Thanks Bhavani] – Chill Out: We all need these reminders once in a [...]

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