The festival of Diwali is celebrated with gaiety and
enthusiasm for a period of five days and each day has its significance
with numerous myths, legends and beliefs. The first day is called
Dhanteras or Dhantrayodashi, which falls on the thirteenth day of the
month of Ashwin, two days before Diwali. The word 'Dhan' means wealth. On
this people worship Lord Yama to provide prosperity and well being.
Legend has it that once Lord Vishnu was going south and specifically asked Goddess Lakshmi not to follow him but self willed as she was, she didn't pay any heed and the Lord decided to punish her, banishing her for 13 years to a farmer's house from whose field she had eaten a stalk of sugarcane. At the end of exile when the Lord came to fetch her, the farmer refused to let her go. Eventually Lakshmi relents and instructs the farmer clean his house and light a lamp of ghee and promises to come to his house and fill it up with riches. It's a tradition in the northern part of India to buy metal utensils on this day - perhaps to contain the riches?
According to another legend, at the time of Samudra Manthan when the Gods and demons churned the ocean for Amrut or nectar, 'Dhanavantri' emerged carrying a jar of the elixir. Since he's also the physician of God, cleanliness and hygiene are essential to this festival.
An Interesting Tale
There is a very interesting story associated with this festival. Its about the sixteen year old son of King Hima. As per his horoscope he was doomed to die by a snake-bite on the fourth day of his marriage.
On that particular fourth day of his marriage his young wife did not allow him to sleep. She laid all the ornaments and lots of gold and silver coins in a big heap at the entrance of her husband's boudoir and lighted innumerable lamps all over the place. And she went on telling stories and singing songs.
When Yam, the God of Death arrived there in the guise of a Serpent his eyes got blinded by that dazzle of those brilliant lights and he could not enter the Prince's chamber. So he climbed on top of the heap of the ornaments and coins and sat there whole night listening to the melodious songs. In the morning he quietly went away.
Thus the young wife saved her husband from the clutches of death. Since then this day of Dhanteras came to be known as the day of "Yamadeepdaan" and lamps are kept burning throughout the night in reverential adoration to Yam, the God of Death.
Rituals & Traditions
Earlier people use to buy to new utensils on the day of Dhanteras. This tradition is still followed by the people. On this day people bath early in the morning and observe fast, which is only broken after sunset with sweetmeats, puri and other delicacies.