Dhanteras marks the first day of the five day festival of Diwali. ‘Dhan’ means wealth while ‘teras’ refers to the 13th day of Krishna Paksh. It is believed that if you invest in metal on this day, it’s value will multiply manifold. Hence, people buy gold or other metal (kitchen utensils, silver coins etc) as a ritual to invoke prosperity in their lives. Earthen lamps are lit in households from this day forward till Diwali to prepare for the arrival of the Goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, who along with Lord Kuber and Lord Dhanvantri are worshipped on Dhanteras.
There are many legends about how the festival came to be. One such story involves the mythological churning of the sea by the the Gods and demons called “Samundra manthan”. As the sea churned, Lord Dhanvantri emerged from it carrying in his hand the elixir of life or “Amrit” that the celestial beings saw as real wealth. He also carried with him the knowledge of Ayurveda to free human beings from physical suffering. The Indian ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy, announced its decision to observe Dhanteras, as the “National Ayurveda Day”.
Another often quoted legend is the story of the son of King Hima. The sixteen year old was prophesized to die of a snake bite on the fourth day after his wedding. His concerned bride, placed a heaps of gold and silver coins and metallic ornaments at the door to prevent the entry of that snake that the prophecy had declared would be the cause of the young price’s death. She spent all night singing songs and narrating stories so that her husband wouldn’t be lulled into sleep. As Yamraj came closer to their room, disguised as a snake, he was dazzled by the radiance of the coins that lay in his path and spent the designated time of death distracted by the stories being told by the newly wed princess. As a result of this, the young prince’s life was saved.
The legend that finds most believers in the Indian hinterland involves a curse that befell Goddess Lakshmi. During one of her many visits to earth, she was distracted by the mustard flowers growing in a farm. She plucked the flowers and enjoyed the sweet taste of the sugar canes that grew near by. Lord Vishnu was disappointed to see how she had given into her senses, and cursed her to 12 years of intense labour in the farm where she had enjoyed the worldly, sensory pleasures. For 12 years, the goddess disguised as a labourer, toiled on the farm and this period saw a marked change in the fortunes of the owner of the farm. When it was time to leave, the Goddess revealed herself to the farmer who prostrated in front of her and sought her blessings. She promised him that she would return on the same date every year if he lit lamps to guide her his home and invoked her energies by praying to her image. As the story of the farmer’s new found prosperity spread, more and more people started following this ritual in the hope that the Goddess’ grace would touch their lives as well.
Whether these legends are rooted in fact or are mere myths is up for debate. However, Dhanteras is celebrated with much fervour.