Phagwah is being officially observed this Sunday and or Monday, a national holiday in Guyana and India. It is also observed this Sunday in Trinidad, Surinam, and Mauritius, and the rest of the diaspora. During normal time, it would be a massive celebration even in countries where it is not a holiday. Some countries will burn Holika Saturday night while others are doing so Sunday midnight. Almost everywhere, it would be a virtual or low keyed celebration because of the threat posed by the Pandemic; gatherings are not allowed anywhere.
Phagwah is a fun filled festival in which people display love and affection for one another in playful jollification. Those of us in the diaspora who grew up in Guyana, or Trinidad or Surinam have fond memories about Phagwah. It is a joyous festival, celebrated with great gusto, zeal and enthusiasm, one in which the religious aspects are generally stripped from a traditional Hindu festival.
Phagwah heralds the coming of Spring. Phagwah is the most colorful of the Hindu festivals and celebrated after bonfire burning of Holika, the symbolic destruction of evil. Phagwah signifies the triumph of good over evil. Hence the need to burn holika that represents evil. Holika is burnt on the first full moon in Spring.
In North East India, where most Indo-Caribbeans trace their roots, the festival is called Phagwah. But in all other parts of India it is known as Holi.
Unlike most other countries, Phagwah was/is a unique festival in Guyana; it is about the only festival that crosses ethnic boundaries and that was celebrated by almost all ethnic groups and religions. The festival has a theme of universal brotherhood and in Guyana it was a boisterous festival of fun and excitement celebrated with revelry by people of all ages and ethnicities with even Africans and Muslims partaking in the festivities. Colorful powder and water were showered on the people with community merging into one big fraternity. There was no distinction of creed, race, and sex. Celebrants were freed from social norms and taboos.
As is the custom in Guyana, Holika is “juked” planted (with the castor oil tree and dried branches of trees and wood) amidst chanting of rituals and pooja some forty nights before its burning on a full moon. During many of the ensuing forty nights, members of the chowtal groups in each village took turn singing chowtals and taans (folk singing) at each other’s home where delicacies and tea (or often rum) were served. As Phagwah day approached, phagwah mania was all over the place especially among the youth who accompanied the adults on their nightly singing. For the students, the festivity would begin on the last school day before Phagwah with a prayer service and a cultural variety concert. Then students would spray abeer or splash powder on each other. After school, students would throw each other in a stink drain as part of the fun.
After the burning of Holika which would coincide with the full moon of Phalgun, men sing folk songs accompanied by rhythmic beats of the indigenous drum. The celebration commences with the splashing of water mixed with ash on each other after midnight. Then the chowtal groups would sing with the accompaniment of music for hours while consuming alcohol. The revelry and singing would continue throughout the night until the mid-morning. Then the men would slowly begin their rhythmic tempo through the main street of the village. The group often stopped in peoples home along the way and be entertained with delicacies or liquor or tea. Celebrants would throw water
that was often mixed with mud or cow dung, or abeer on each other. Some of the celebrants would get thrown in dirty ravines or trenches or canals as part of the fun. It is a sea of colours, as colourful as it can get. The scene was one of unbridled enthusiasm.
By the mid morning, the dirty part of the celebration ends and participants clean up and get ready for the evening celebration which was more sobering.
In the late afternoon, celebrants, dressed in clean white clothing, make their way through the village and or to neighboring villages armed with a pitchkari or spray bottle with colorful abeer and talc powder “playing phagwah” with the whole village and beyond. Almost every home would be visited. Faces would be smeared with colorful abeer or abrack. People would exchange good wishes, sweets, cards and gifts. People dance to the rhythmic beats of the drums and sing Holi songs. Hindus and non-Hindus, and visitors would partake in the delicacies (bara, gulgula, phulourie, bigany, mango chutney, potato ball, prasad, channa, ghoja, sweet rice, among others prepared for the occasion. Food was always plentiful and the youths would have a feast of allou curry with dhal puri and the other dainty dishes. Also, on Phagwah day, it was traditional for Hindus to distribute sweets or mitai and food to non-Hindus or those Hindus who could not celebrate Phagwah because of the recent death of a relative. Non-Hindus are also invited for dinner for the occasion.
May you have a safe, joyous Phagwah!