Phagwah in India, New York, Caribbean & Europe

Phagwah in India, New York, Caribbean & Europe

Holi has been celebrated with gusto all over Northern India and Bombay where we have traveled over the last several days. Holi is popularly called the festival of colors as well as a water festival.  The festival of colors is an essential segment of the Indian cultural landscape wherever Indians are found with the intensity of the celebration varying depending on the size of the population and its acceptance in those societies. People of different backgrounds participate in it in India as well as in other places where it is celebrated including in London, Manchester, Amsterdam, New York and Toronto. Politicians in these societies join in the celebration and there are usually observations in government offices. In Paris, the celebration is not as widespread as in the US or Canada or UK or Holland.

People who live among Indians overseas where the festival is observed are fascinated by the festivals with its folk music and colors; the fast tempo beats would make anyone want to join in dancing. As in North America and Europe and the Caribbean, non-Indians participate in the festival attracted by the colors, musical beats, and foods. In fact, Holi is almost synonymous for the Indian subcontinent for foreigners coming from Asia and Europe as it is for Indians on this special day. The same is the tradition in North America especially on the day of the parades in Queens, Bronx, Jersey City, and Orlando. Annually, Holi held a special place in the hearts and minds for non-Hindus and non-Indians.


The meaning behind the festival is righteousness and peace and forgiveness; people bury their differences. It is associated with Lord Krishna and it is a grand festival in Mathura where Lord Krishna was born.  Hundreds of buses trek to Mathura from all over India to participate in weeks of celebrations – singing religious songs and chowtaal (the folk singing).

Over the last few days, we have been around Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two states where many Indains from the Caribbean, Mauritius, Fiji and other places trace their roots.  Dr. Bisram also visited Madya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Mumbai to observe preparation is Bihar. As we both found in our movements, people all over northern India have been making elaborate preparations to celebrate Holi not different from those observed in the Caribbean and the Indo-Caribbean diaspora in North America and Europe (UK, Holland and Paris), though not very popular in France. In UK, it is celebrated primarily in the temples.

Unlike in the Caribbean, where it is popularly called Phagwah, in India is is more commonly called Holi and it is a holiday similar to Guyana and other societies where large numbers of Indians are present. As we observed, planning and preparation for the festival in India are similar to what is done in New York, Toronto, Florida or Guyana or Holland or Caribbean societies where Phagwah is observed. Hindus and other Indians in Paris (Indian immigrants from French Caribbean and Guiana) and UK cities (London, Manchester, etc) also observe the festival but are not as deeply into it like their brethren in Europe – not surprising since there are hundreds of temples and organizations among Indo-Caribbeans in the US and Canada and fewer in UK and France. But the festival is commemorated  Although it was not Holi as yet during the early parts of the week, we observed a fascination or riot of colors almost everywhere especially among the younger generation – students (at colleges and schools) played Holi because their school week ended early on Wednesday with Holi being on Friday.

It is almost impossible to describe the many colors associated with the festival in India – varieties of gulals, abracks that have never been seen. The two writers, Pawan Upadhyaya and Dr. Bisram celebrated Holi in Guyana in 2017; Pawan feels Holi celebration is almost the same in Guyana as in his district in Azamgarh where so many indentureds migrated. Bisram also observed similaritiesalthough he feels people are more deeply immersed in Holi in the Caribbean and New York.  In India, as in the Caribbean, people are dresed in White and their cothing are completely stained with a variety of colors. The same is true for Holland especially in the larger cities (like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hague, etc.) where Holi is celebrated with much enthusiasm. In London and Paris, where the Hindu ;population is much smaller than in North America and Holland, people gather over the weekend (on a Saturday or Sunday) to observe the festival. But the celebrations in Paris and UK are almost the same as elsewhere but not with the same kind of revelry or gusto as in North America or the Caribbean.

In India, as in the Caribbean, pyres of Holika (wood), that would be lit on Thursday midnight, were observed everywhere. Almost every street had a mound of dried wood of a conical shape that will be set ablaze. New York and Florida also have pyres. Europe uses havan fires in a kund to symbolically burn the evil of Holika. Setting the pyres (Holika) on fire symbolizes the destruction  of evil which is the meaning of Holi. It is a national holiday in India, as it is in Guyana, and is perhaps the largest festival after Diwali in India and the Indian diaspora. Schools and government offices as well as all businesses are closed on Friday. People who are employed away from home, returned to their homes or villages to celebrate the occasion with families. 

On the streets, schools, and colleges as well as in offices, people were seen rubbing abeer (powder) on each other's face long before Holika was burnt. The last day of classes was on Wednesday as students were sent home for an extended holiday weekend. Everywhere on Thursday, people were seen celebrating with much fervour. Thursday was called Chota Holi as it preceded the actual day of the celebration. Holi is one of the most widely celebrated festivals across the country. In Bijhar, Bisram-ji was smeared with colors by his ancestral relatives who he met for the first time.

There is a multitude of colors of powders on the faces as well as as on clothing. Mounds of abeer of every color imaginable were seen in markets everywhere I traveled. Youngsters also had spray guns and older folks had colorful hats. Markets were teeming with shoppers purchasing related items for the festivals -- vegetables, new clothing, fruits, spray guns, talc powder, and abeer. Grapes and guavas are plentiful as this is the season for both. In some cities, people celebrated with gusto with an even grander celebration planned for Friday. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where most Guyanese trace their roots, chowtaal music were heard at every street or home. TV stations also aired Bollywood scripted songs. And children were smearing abeer on each other's face or clothing or hair. Bisram was smeared by adults and kids on the streets. More are in store on Friday. Smearing is similar as in Guyana -- on gthe faces and hair. Liquid was not used on Thursday but much will be used on Friday similar to Guyana. Ashes of the burnt pyre will be mixed in water and poured on revelers -- a similar practice in Guyana going back since the time of the indentureds. 

The festival is celebrated in India with similar foods consumed on that day in the Caribbean and the Indo-Caribbean diaspora -- ghoja, kheer, ladoo, gulab jamun, channa, matar peas, dhal puri or matar puri, alou curry, phulourie, pakora, bara, bhaji, mitai, ras milai, ras gula, among other items. There must be a minimum of eight food items. We was entertained at homes in Bihar and UP where a variety of vegetarian dishes, dhal and rice were served - very spicy but tasty. Everywhere we went, we received royal treatment -- fotigners are Gods and Goddesses at the homes of hosts.

Overall, it is been a very enjoyable Holi festival in India similar to the Caribbean -- people of all ethnicities, religions and castes participate and share in the joy. Shubh Holi to all!