Oil lamps and paper lanterns, sweets and saris, firecrackers and feasts… November’s Deepavali festival turns the Malaysian capital into a nocturnal delight

For a victory as monumental as light over darkness, it’s no wonder the Malaysian capital feels the urge to celebrate in November. Deepavali, or Diwali, which takes place on 10 November this year, marks the Hindu New Year, and is when locals in their millions light oil lamps across the city to attract Lakshmi, the goddess of light, wisdom and prosperity, to their homes.

Paper festival lanterns

Paper festival lanterns

For Kuala Lumpur – a name that translates as ‘Muddy River’ in Malay – Deepavali is a beguiling nocturnal tradition in which, albeit briefly, the garish sprawl of neon and sodium that glows across the immense urban mountain range of skyscrapers is replaced, on ground level at least, with a flickering candlelit atmosphere of long shadows, feasts and general bonhomie.

Dubbed the Festival of Lights, the celebration is steeped in Hindu tradition and is when homes, market stalls, even modern shopping malls, are transformed with illuminations. The Little India neighbourhoods of Brickfields and Masjid India are utterly overwhelming – their stalls and sidewalks crammed with small oil and clay lamps that are kept lit throughout the night and huge paper lanterns and kolams (large multicoloured patterns made from coloured powders and rice) are spread out on the floor around the entrance to stores.

A 'kolam' design

A 'kolam' design

Soothing as all this may sound, there’s a more than bellicose element to Deepavali, too. Come nightfall, the city fizzes and bangs with the clatter of thousands of firecrackers let off outside homes and shops in order to ward off evil spirits and welcome in Lakshmi.

Looking the part is a must for locals at this auspicious time of year. For suitable sartorial style the three-decade-old Madras Store in Masjid is a long-standing favourite, selling bangles, textiles and saris from India. More expensive, pure Kanchipuram silk or chiffon saris are available at the Haniffa store nearby.

'Barfi' sweets, eaten during Deepavali

'Barfi' sweets, eaten during Deepavali

There’s no greater time of year in KL to indulge your sweet tooth than during Deepavali. Take your pick in stores such as Jesal in Brickfields or at the Sangeetha café in Masjid Jamek, where the counters almost groan under the weight of the fudge-esque barfi sweets: kaju katli (with cashew nuts and dried fruit) and laddu (small ball-shaped sweets of besan [chickpea flour], semolina and ground coconut). You’ll find yourself, no matter what you promised beforehand, eating these delicacies by the dozen.

If you want to usher in the festival with a celebratory feast, Mandarin Oriental, Kuala Lumpur has a special guest chef during Deepavali, Karan Talpade from The Oberoi, Mumbai, whose array of traditional Indian cuisine is available at Mosaic.

KL'slandmark Sultan Abdul Samad Building with illuminations

KL's landmark Sultan Abdul Samad Building with illuminations

This might be one of the most frantic cities in Asia, but for one night only this is a place where, for thousands of families, the pace slows down to the flicker of candlelight, the reading of prayers and, perhaps, just perhaps, a glimpse of that goddess of prosperity.

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Rob Crossan

London-based Rob Crossan is a travel writer and broadcaster who writes for publications including The Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, GQ and Tatler. He also presents the BBC disability talk show Ouch! and is a regular contributor to From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio 4 as well as the World Service.

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