For thousands of years, Diwali celebrations have had a sweet embrace on India.
Sugary treats, or mithai, have long been central to this Hindu festival of lights - sweet, fudgy goodies rich with cardamon, pistachio and saffron, often coated with an ethereal foil of pure silver. They are eagerly eaten, given as gifts, offered to the gods. But the sugary glow is fading. With India's economy booming and its people's waistlines expanding, sweets are losing their allure. Increasingly, the nation's growing urban middle class wants holiday presents that better reflect newfound wealth. And an explosion of obesity and related health conditions has many Indians - some 35 million of whom are diabetic - thinking twice about treats.
"Thirty years back there was no option but sweets," says Girish Aggarwal, a partner in the Bengali Sweet Shop, a New Delhi landmark where the counters are piled with rich sweets shaped like apples and roses and creamy slabs of cashew and pistachio barfis, a dense fudge-like sweet often made from condensed milk.
"People are not illiterate now, they know about other options," says Aggarwal, whose shop saw festival-related sales drop 20 percent last year. "Now we have everything in India: Belgian chocolates, Swarovski crystals, electronics, gold and silver." On Diwali, or Deepavali as it is known in some parts of the country, Hindus light lamps to signify the victory of good over evil. New clothes are worn, gifts - traditionally of sweets - are given and prayers are offered to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. While exact figures are elusive, thousands of tons of sweets are made every year in a market dominated by mom-and-pop stores. Shop owners say Diwali can account for as much as 30 percent of their annual sales.
That is changing. Last year, sales of sweets in New Delhi during Diwali - traditionally celebrated in October or November _ were down 40 percent from the year before, according to a survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India. The preferred gifts now? Linens, toasters and iPods. But sweets shops are fighting back. Traditional treats usually contain plenty of ghee (clarified butter) and sugar. Now businesses such as Nathu's Sweets, a leading chain with branches across northern India, are offering more sugar-free varieties. "We have been making them for about 10 years now," says Indu Gupta, whose husband is the great-grandson of Nathu's founder. "Initially there was not much demand, but in recent years it has shot up."
The Bengali Sweet Shop makes sugar-free treats too, using artificial sweeteners. But Aggarwal can barely hide his disdain. "The taste is not the same, but those who cannot eat regular sweets, like diabetics, have no option," he says. "Those who are health conscious still eat regular sweets, they just eat less." Some have simply found healthier alternatives. "Most of the time we give dried fruits. They are healthier, last longer and are more practical," says Sukhpreet Kaur, 32, as she waited outside Nathu's while a friend shopped inside. In the run-up to Diwali this year, which begins Oct. 28, economists are predicting further woes for the sweets industry. India's economic growth has slowed this year. Global economic uncertainty and rising inflation have sent food prices soaring. This means India's poor, still the vast majority in this nation of 1.1 billion, probably also will buy fewer sweets this holiday. But nobody is predicting the demise of the Indian sweet. No event, from a birth to buying a new car, is complete without someone offering friends, family or co-workers a tray of mithai. Even on a regular day, both Nathu's and the Bengali Sweet Shop were packed with customers.
"Without sweets, there is no festival and there are no occasions without sweets," says Deepak Kumar, 34, who was buying bundles of them for his upcoming wedding and planned to be back for more for Diwali.
Perhaps signifying how central sweets are to Indian culture, the government released millions of tons of sugar into the markets in September in a bid to drive down prices ahead of the festival season.
Even sweet shop owners remain upbeat about Diwali. "Diwali is the biggest festival, so people spend all their money," says Aggarwal while showing off his shop's most expensive treat, a bright green square of pure pistachio and sugar dotted with pure silver that melts in the mouth.
"The silver is just for decoration. It's like lipstick on a lady," he explains. "It makes her more beautiful, but doesn't change the woman."