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By  Manmohan Melville 

The packs are shuffled. The plastic rummy counters are piled up in front of the players. The cards are dealt. The bids are called. Money changes hands. Gambling is very much a part of the Divali festivities! Legend has it that the goddess Parvati sat down to play dice with her husband Lord Shiva on this night. And she decreed that all who gambled on Divali night would prosper throughout the New Year.  

A more severe superstition cautions those who do not indulge in gambling at Divali It warns them that they will be born as donkeys in their next births! (Of course, there is no way we can confirm this superstition, so we won’t talk too much about it.)

And so, we have this unusual custom of gambling on Divali night! Some players gamble under the pretext of religion, while others consider it a part of the merriment of the season. But, most see it as a lively way of keeping awake through this auspicious night. In most Hindu houses, gambling at Divali is part of the tradition -- to bid farewell to the Old Year and to usher in the New Year. Perhaps the real reason for gambling at Divali arose from humbler, rural customs…

 A Night to Gamble

The  story of how Diwali came to be celebrated took place during Rama avatar. Rama killed Ravana on Vijaya Dashmi day and returned to Ayodhya on this day, 20 days after Ravana’s death. He sent Hanuman to Bharata, to convey to him that Rama, Sita and Laxman were on their way back in Ayodhya and the lights were lit because it was Amavasya night, dark and moonless. In the northern parts of India this festivity is known as Deepavali, the festival of lights and victory of virtue over evil.  In the southern parts Diwali is attributed to Krishna avatar, which was in the Dwapara Yuga.

Divali (and Holi) are festivals that originated in India to mark the major change of the seasons. Divali marks the time between harvest and sowing a new crop. In ancient, rural India, it was the festival that marked the harvest of the kharif crop and the purchase of the next rabi crop to be sowed.

Sociologists believe that Divali began as a celebration of the harvest season – a season of plenty and prosperity. With the end of one harvest and the start of a new sowing season – naturally, people looked upon the festival as the start of a New Year.  

After the sale of the kharif crops, the farmers were generally flush with money in their pockets. This was the time to thank the Gods for good fortune and to seek their blessings for the new season.

 This was also the time to buy new provisions for the home and the family. People brought new utensils, whitewashed their houses and entered into new financial deals for the next season. And so, the festival acquired the air of being a very auspicious time.

 Naturally, with so much money in the pocket, with so much time on hand and with so much bonhomie in the air, one of the ways to pass those ancient evenings was to indulge in a little drink and a roll of the dice. In ancient India, dice games were extremely popular, and so, Divali must have been a time for the farmers to take it easy and spend some lazy days with family and friends.

 This may have been the actual social origin of the unusual practice of gambling at Divali. It was a holiday-time activity that acquired the divine sanction of recognition.

 A Month to Gamble!  

A night to gamble may seem fair enough – but in some parts of India one night does not seem quite enough! In many parts of Gujarat, the entire Hindu month of Shravan (usually in August-September) is considered auspicious for gambling. Gamblers in the state may have the divine nod. Even the police are usually helpless to take any action against them – as the gamblers are from such a wide cross-section of society.

While the people from the lower strata of society, gamble in shady dens; the rich organize games, involving thousands or lakhs of rupees, in clubs, five-star hotels, bungalows and private farmhouses. The popular card games are Flush (“teen pati”) and Rummy.

One destination in India that sees a terrific surge of tourists all through the Divali season is Goa. Ever since political trouble erupted in Katmandu, Goa has acquired a newfound status as the “casino centre” of India. It has one floating and six on-shore casinos.

Goa has become the new destination for gamblers and fun-seekers from Mumbai, Gujarat and Bangalore. They come here to claim the promise made by goddess Parvati at Divali time!

 Let’s Party

Divali Card Parties usually take place on Divali night – after the pooja. However, there is no strict rule about this. Some folks begin their gambling sessions a full week before Divali – culminating on the day after the festival. The general rule most people observe is -- be traditional! That includes the food, the mood, the clothes and the decor.  

The house is usually decorated with diyas and marigold flowers. If possible, the “western furniture” is pushed to one side – and gaddis (or mattresses) are rolled out – to create a desi aura. The guests are encouraged to dress in ethnic outfits – churidars and achkans for the men, while the ladies wear saris and gagra-cholis.

 The food is very Indian – tandoori fare, rotis, biryanis and tikha barbecue bits – usually served buffet-style (with drinks) and plenty of kheers and mithais. Divali card parties are of two kinds. There are the mild, family affairs, where the stakes are purposely kept low and reasonable, so that all family members and friends – including teenagers and children  -- can take part in the fun. The losses here are never more than a couple of hundred rupees. And the purpose of playing is for all to indulge in the gambling and merriment as a part of the Divali tradition. The other kind of Divali card parties – are the hard-core, truly competitive sessions. Here, businessmen (and their spouses) gather around to indulge in friendly contests. But, the games are played dead serious – with money (in thousands or even lakhs) exchanging hands.  

One of the legends says that Lakshmi will only bless the person who wins at gambling on Divali night. So naturally, each businessman would like to impress goddess Lakshmi on this auspicious night. The parties go on till the wee hours of the morning. Piles of money exchange hands. After all, this is supposed to be an invitation to goddess Lakshmi. So, this Divali play your cards right.  Happy Divali!