Phagwah was introduced in America by Indo-Caribbeans. Phagwah was introduced in New York and other USA locations by the India Guyanese and Trini Hindus some five decades ago. Early Guyanese and Trinidadian migrants started celebration Phagwah, Diwali, Eid, and other Indian festivals going back to the 1960s. Facing racial discrimination at home, being denied jobs and or promotions, Indian Guyanese and Trinis started coming to the US as foreign students and or as tourists during the early 1960s and decided to settle down rather than re-migrate ‘home’. Guyanese escaped Burnham’s anti-Indian persecution right fater he became Premier.
The early Indian Guyanese and Trini migrants lived in inexpensive hotel rooms or shared small apartments. Migrants of different religious backgrounds lived together. They celebrated each other’s festivals that were held in the hotel room or the apartments during the early years of their presence in New York. In later years, when they could afford it, they moved to larger apartments and some purchased houses. Celebrations took place in the larger apartments or their homes depending on the weather or in the yard of their homes. And over time, they rented a ballroom or school auditorium for religious festivals like Eid, Holi, Diwali. When I first came to the US in 1977 as a student at university, I organized Diwali, Phagwah and Eid celebrations on campus from 1977 onwards while I was a student. City College provided accommodations for celebrations of festivals. When I finished college, I organized cultural variety concerts for Diwali and Holi at school auditoriums and ballrooms. Haji Zakjir and other groups organized Eid celebrations that I patronized and wrote about in the community press. Guyana was in the throes of a fascist dictatorship during that period with the regime controlling the media. Nothing about the diaspora was carried in the Guyanese press.
The large influx of Guyanese (and Trinis), beginning in the late 1970s and continuing up until this day, has made it possible for Phagwah, Eid, Holi, etc. to be celebrated in NY and other American cities similar to Guyana except for the brutally cold weather which prevents all the traditions that we experience in Guyana. The Phagwah celebration was not always this large and did not include any public festivities or the trappings of today. In fact it has only taken off over the last 35 years. Prior to 1990, Phagwah observances were minimal in the US and took place indoors in apartments. There were few mandirs. Religious services on Sunday mornings took place in hotel rooms or apartments. During the 1980s, services shifted to basements of some mandir or Masjid members who volunteered their place for worship. And later, these services were held in car garages that were converted into mandirs or masjids. Churches came about in the 2000s.
I remember in the late 1970s, living in the South Bronx as a college student (attending CCNY in Harlem), it was unheard of to celebrate Phagwah in public. At CCNY, Indo-Caribbean students of the Indo Club joined Indian nationals for a short prayer, distribution of Prasad, and snacks including jalebi, burfi, mohanbhog which I prepare on campus, watching a Bollywood film and a simple dinner organised by myself, Vassan Ramracha and Baytoram Ramharack, among others.
Guyanese simply observed the Phagwah festival at home with prayers and without any abeer. Family members partook in a traditional vegetarian meal and mohanbhog (prasad). Some individuals would attend religious service at the Pandit Oumdat Maharaj led Mahatma Gandhi Satsangh temple on Townsend Avenue in the South Bronx and later in Jamaica where Phagwah and other auspicious holidays would be celebrated. Pt. Oumadat’s temple (God bless him) provided a critical spiritual need to Hindu Guyanese. He also worked closely with Haji Zakir and Christian priests.
Thousands of Guyanese were settled in the South Bronx and Jamaica and they would show up for Friday afternoon Jumaa or Sunday morning havan service and on the evenings of auspicious days in the Hindu calendars. Even Guyanese Christians who felt lonely in NY during the 1970s and 1980s came for the Hindu religious service. Phagwah was celebrated at the temple’s yard on the Sunday before or after the official observance or on the day if it was a weekend. In Queens, Pandit Jadonath held worshipping service that attracted a significant following in Far Rockaway and later in 101 Ave and Liberty Ave in Richmond Hill. In Brooklyn, on Ave D, near Foster Ave, the huge basement of a tenement building owned by Guyanese, Pandit Misir, during the 1970s and continuing till this day, served as a make shift temple where Phagwah was observed in a somewhat subdued manner. The Arya Samajists also had a temple with the large basement of Vishnu Bandhu’s furniture store used for Phagwah celebration in Brooklyn during the 1980s. During the 1970s and early 1980s, and later years, the few temples hosted chowtal singing on weekends and on Phagwah evening with celebrants using talc powder instead of abeer to sprinkle on one another. Some members of the temples also hosted satsanghs (prayer services) and dinners in their homes accompanied by chowtal singing.
As the Guyanese community grew in Queens in the mid 1980s with more migration, holi Samellan (variety concerts of music and dance) were held annually at public schools (beginning at first at Hillcrest) in Jamaica where thousands of Guyanese had settled. Hundreds would attend the concerts. But the use of abeer was not allowed and playful jollification was restricted to talc powder and minimal use of abrack. In 1990, the parade was launched in Richmond Hill where tens of thousands of Guyanese had made their home.
Today the area is home to about 250,000 Indo-Caribbeans and another 50,000 South Asians. As an outdoor celebration, people felt unrestrained in using abeer, powder and other Phagwah paraphernalia. Today, the parade attracts over 30,000. During the 1990s, parades were also held in Queens Village (now discontinued) which is home to thousands of Guyanese, the Bronx and Jersey City where thousands of Guyanese are also settled. The Holi Samellans continued during the 1990s in public schools. But with the much larger crowds now, the samellans are held outdoors on the compounds of mandirs or in the streets blocked off by the police. In the past, a light snack was offered at the celebrations. Today, the samellans provide a full meal with people offering a donation.
In the past, people used to look at Phagwah celebrants as being weird for having their faces smeared with colours.
But more and more Americans have become familiar with the festival especially in the areas where the parades are held. Americans no longer consider it odd to see Guyanese playing with talc powder, abrack, gulals and abeer in the city parks. They also like the festival and join in the fun and they love the chowtal and loud tassa music. Many non-Guyanese and many non-Hindus participate in the parade today. Young Afro-Guyanese and Hispanics are also part of the celebration.
So Phagwah has come a long way in NY thanks to the interest shown by Guyanese to propagate the culture in the areas where large numbers of our people are settled.
By Dr Vishnu Bisram