The festival of Dhanteras is also known as Dhantrayodashi and Dhanvantari Trayodashi (Dhanwantari Trayodashi). This festival marks the beginning of the Diwali celebrations and that is why, it is considered the first day of five days long festivities of Diwali. The term ‘Dhanteras’ consists of two factors ‘dhan’, which means wealth and ‘teras’, which means thirteenth. Here thirteenth is meant to indicate the day ‘Trayodashi’, i.e. the thirteenth day of the month on which Dhanteras falls. Dhanvantari Trayodashi (Dhanwantari Trayodashi) is celebrated on the thirteenth lunar day of Krishna Paksha, of the Hindu month of Kartik, which is two days before Diwali.
People worship Lord Yamaraj, the God of death, on this day and light a ‘Yama-Diya’ in the night to offer prayers to him to bless them with prosperity, well being and protection. They also purchase a new utensil, silver or gold coin or some other precious metal as a sign of good luck on the day of Dhanteras. The day of Dhanteras has great importance for the mercantile community of Western India. In Maharashtra, there is a peculiar custom to lightly pound dry coriander seeds with jaggery and offer as Naivedya. In the rural areas the cultivators worship their cattle because they form the main source of their income and livelihood.
The legend of Samudramanthan is at the heart of these celebrations. Lord Indra was cursed by sage Durvasa that “The pride of wealth has entered his head and let Lakshmi leave him.” On account of Durvasa’s curse, Lakshmi left Indra and went away. As Lakshmi is the goddess of power, bravery, enthusiasm and radiance left, Devendra’s life became miserable. The demons that were waiting for such an opportunity invaded heaven, defeated Indra. He lost his kingdom and hid out of the sight of the demons.
A number of years passed. Indra’s teacher Brihaspati thought of finding a way out for Indra’s troubles. He went with the gods to Brahma, who went to Vishnu, A way was found out of it. The sea of milk was to be churned. It was a very difficult job. Therefore the friendship of the demons and get their assistance was required. Mandara Mountain was a churning rod and Vasuki, the king of the serpents, as a rope.
When the sea will be churned ambrosia will be produced. The gods must drink it and become immortal. It will then be possible for gods to defeat the demons. When the sea is churned, Lakshmi who has disappeared will appear again. Her grace will be bestowed.The clever Brihaspati managed to strike a friendship with the demons who agreed in the hope of getting ambrosia and wealth. After initial difficulties posed by the sinking of mount Mandara into the milky sea which was set right by Lord Vishnu who took the form of a tortoise and hoisted it on his back, the churning started.
First, Kalakuta, a dreadful poison was produced which Lord Shiva drank much to the relief of the gods and demons. Due to Vishnu’s continued encouragement, gods and demons continued churning the sea. Then a horse by name Uchaishravas, Kalpavriksha had the power to grant what is wished, and Kamdhenu and other celestial articles took shape. When the sea continued to be churned the Apsara were born.
After that in the midst of the waves of the sea of milk, a goddess with heavenly looks came into view. She was standing on a fully blossomed lotus. Wearing a lotus garland in the neck, she was holding a lotus in her hand. She was attractive and was radiantly smiling, she was Lakshmi.
The sages began reciting hymns in praise of her. Gandharvas sang. Apsaras danced. The elephants on either side sprinkled sacred holy Ganga water on the goddess and bathed her. Because the elephants sprinkled holy water on her, she acquired the name of Gajalakshmi. Because she was born in the sea of milk, she was called Samudratanya. The king of the sea appeared in his natural form and comforted Lakshmi as a daughter. He presented her with attractive clothes and jewels. He handed to her a garland of lotus flowers. While everybody was looking in surprise, Lakshmi put the garland around the neck of Vishnu. Then she looked at Indra kindly, he acquired an extraordinary radiance.
The gods and demons continued to churn the ocean for Amrut or nectar, Finally Dhanavantri emerged carrying a jar of the elixir (ambrosia). Both the asuras and the devas wanted the ambrosia, but finally Vishnu managed to give the immortal nectar to the gods and the asuras where defeated. Thus the churning of the ocean resulted in the immortality of the devas and was the reason for Lakshmi’s emergence.
Another interesting story famous about Dhanteras is related to the son of King Hima and his intelligent wife. It was predicted about King Hima that he would die on the fourth day of his marriage and the reason behind his death would be snakebite. When his wife came to know about such a prediction she decided not to let her husband die and for this she made a plan. On the fourth day of their marriage she collected all the jewelery and wealth at the entrance of her husband’s boudoir and lighted lamps all around the place and started telling stories and singing songs one after another in order to not let her husband sleep.
In the mid night Lord Yama, the God of death arrived there in guise of a snake. The bright lights of the lamps lit by the wife of the king’s son blinded his eyes and he could not enter their chamber. Therefore, Lord Yama found a place to stay comfortable on top of the heap of the jewelry and wealth and kept sitting there for the whole night waiting to get a chance to bite the king’s son but as the wife of the king’s son kept telling stories and singing songs for the whole night therefore he could not get any chance and in the morning he left the place quietly. Thus, the wife saved her husband’s life from the cruel clutches of death. Since then the day of dhanteras is also known as the day of ‘Yamadeepdaan’ and it has become a tradition to light a diya on dhanteras and to keep it burning throughout the night in reverential adoration of Lord Yama, the God of death.