In this Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013 photo, an Indian widow lights crackers as they celebrate Diwali or the festival of lights at an Ashram in Vrindavan, India. In India, for all of its recent modernization and openness to foreign cultures, being a widow remains one of the worst stigmas a woman can endure, and women are far from equal here. When her husband dies, the widow often becomes a pariah, excluded from family gatherings for fear the mere fall of her shadow will bring bad luck and tragedy. (AP Photo/ Rajesh Kumar Singh)
NEW DELHI (AP) — Millions of Indians were setting off deafening fireworks displays Sunday to light up the sky for Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, which celebrates the triumph of good over evil.
People across India also handed out sweets, exchanged greetings with friends and relatives, and adorned their homes with glowing lanterns and oil lamps as they celebrated the country's most important festival of the year.
Diwali marks the return home of the Hindu god Rama from a 14-year exile after killing the demon Ravana, who had abducted his wife, Sita, according to the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana.
A near-constant stream of fireworks and firecrackers lasting until midnight is expected to leave a dark, smoggy cloud lingering for days — a matter of concern for environmentalists.
Mindful of the pollution and the dangers of the deafening displays, authorities pushed this year to cut down on the number of fireworks, and some schools sent notices home urging parents not to buy any.
The state-run Central Pollution Control Board said it would be monitoring the air quality and noise levels Sunday night at a dozen locations in New Delhi, India's capital.
S.K. Tyagi, a senior scientist at the pollution control board, said the noise level at last year's Diwali festival was down from 2011, due mainly to the use of less noisy fireworks.
India's economic downturn appears to have impacted this year's celebrations.
At a wholesale market in New Delhi, shopkeeper Mahesh Chand Sagar said the sputtering economy was affecting sales.
"Fulfilling one's basic needs has become a problem nowadays," said Sagar, 40, who has been selling candles, garlands and other decorations for the past 10 years. "If people can't afford basic necessities, how will they buy decorative items?"
People typically buy gold during Diwali, including jewelry, coins and small statues of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh. But the government has imposed a steep new tax on gold imports, making the already high prices far out of reach for many Indians.
Diwali also is celebrated by Hindus in other parts of the world, including Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal and Malaysia.