NEW DELHI (AP) -- Indians celebrated Diwali on Monday as bright earthen oil lamps and dazzling, colorful lights lit up homes and streets across the country to mark the Hindu festival that symbolizes the victory of light over darkness.
Diwali, which is a national holiday across India, is typically celebrated by socializing and exchanging gifts with family and friends. Many light earthen oil lamps or candles, and fireworks are set off as part of the celebrations. In the evening, a special prayer is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, who is believed to bring luck and prosperity.
Ahead of the celebrations, cities and towns across the country were decked with colorful lights. Millions of Indians thronged crowded bazaars for shopping, bringing back the Diwali cheer that was dampened during the last two years due to coronavirus restrictions. The markets buzzed with eager shoppers buying flowers, lanterns and candles meant to decorate houses and offices.
As dusk fell on Sunday, over 1.5 million earthen lamps were lit and kept burning for 45 minutes at Ram ki Paidi, at the banks of Saryu River in the northern city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh state, retaining the Guinness World Record it set last year.
Senior government official Nitish Kumar said that over 22,000 volunteers, the majority of them college students, ensured that lamps burned for the prescribed time to break the last year's record of 900,000 oil lamps.
Hindus believe that the deity Lord Ram was born in Ayodhya, where he returned after 14 years in exile. To celebrate his return, people light earthen lamps.
The holy city was decked with fairy lights ahead of the event and a laser and fireworks show illuminated its lanes and river banks. Thousands of residents also lit lamps at their houses and temples across the city.
The stunning spectacle along the shores of Saryu River was also attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Amid chants of Hindu religious hymns, Modi lit an earthen lamp and performed "aarti" --- a customary Hindu ritual that involves waving lighted lamps in front of an idol.
Earlier, Modi offered prayers at a long-awaited temple of the Hindu god Ram at the site of a demolished 16th-century Babri mosque in Ayodhya.
The Babri Masjid mosque was destroyed by a Hindu mob with pickaxes and crowbars in December 1992, sparking massive Hindu-Muslim violence that left some 2,000 people dead, most of them Muslims. The Supreme Court's verdict in 2019 allowed a temple to be built in place of the demolished mosque.
It was Modi's second visit to the temple since he laid the foundation in 2020 for the construction of the temple. Modi and his party had long pledged to build a temple to Ram where the Mughal-era mosque once stood, in a long-running controversy.
"Lord Ram's ideals are a beacon of light for people aspiring for a developed India in the next 25 years," Modi said during his address there.
Over the past few years, Diwali celebrations are tinged with worries over air pollution, which typically shrouds northern India under a toxic gray smog as temperatures dip and winter settles in.
Northern India's pollution woes during the onset of winter mainly stem from vehicular emissions and the burning of crop stubble to clear fields. But on Diwali night people also lit up the sky with firecrackers and its smoke causes smog that sometimes takes days to clear.
Some Indian states, including the capital New Delhi, have banned sales of fireworks and imposed other restrictions to stem the pollution. Authorities have also urged residents to light "green crackers" that emit less pollutants than normal firecrackers. But similar bans have often been flouted in the past.