Holi, is a visual and euphoric festival found in Sanatan Dharma (the Eternal Religion/Dharma) known to the west as Hinduism. It’s also been branded “the festival of colours,” “the festival of love,” and even the “festival of spring.” Holi, like other ancient pagan festivals envisions new beginnings, love, happiness and a triumphant reinvigorated spirit. Holi honors the harvest season. The colours of the Earth are reflected in the traditions of the festivals; the splashing of manmade replicated colors is the main event. It exalts the triumph of dharma (righteousness) over adharma (ignorance and misdeeds). Holi starts in the Hindu month of Phalgun deriving its other name, Phagwa. Holi has been celebrated for almost 160 hundred years by the Indo-Caribbean Hindus in countries such as Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname. The night before Holi begins is known as Holika Dahan or the burning of Holika. The next day is Rangwali Holi or Phagwa: throwing of colours, made in the abeer (powder) or gulal (liquid) form. As nationally celebrated festival by so many citizens of Trinidad and Tobago it is about time Phagwa (Holi) got its due as a national/public holiday.
So why should Phagwa/Holi be a public holiday? Among Trinidad and Tobago’s greatest visual festivals is Holi which is unfortunately unrecognized unlike Divali, Christmas or Carnival. It is one of Trinidad and Tobago’s grandest but unacknowledged cultural assets. Holi is a grand visual experience. It constitutes a night and day of tantamount fun, fanfare, music, revelry, food, fasting and merriment among the local people. Hindus have only one public holiday in Trinidad and Tobago. While there are plenty of national holidays we celebrate on the island already not all are public holidays. However, for quite some time Hindus have only had one public holiday given to them and that is Divali. It’s about time we add another festival to the calendar for Hindus and for the people of Trinidad and Tobago. While Christians have many holidays which run into very large school breaks, this means Christians have ample time to celebrate and prepare the forthcoming of their holidays like Christmas and Easter with plenty of time after for resting. It is not the same for Hindus and Muslims. Holi is a night and day of intense physical activity unlike any other religious festival. A great amount of preparation is needed for the bonfire night not to mention the next day’s vigorous physical activities which includes chasing your friends with abeer and gulal. Hindus and others participating in this divine reenactment of Krishna’s love for Radha are sure to want a day off from school and work to restore their energy. If food preparation and lighting deeyas warrants a day off for Divali, then Holi certainly deserves its due.
Holi is healing. The night before Holi a bonfire is lit for Holika Dahan symbolic of burning the adharma of Holika and constitutes a myriad of spiritual, environmental and medicinal benefits along with the ritual of splashing colors all having purifying properties especially form the ancient organic plant based sources of the colors. A holiday would help restore Holi’s roots to its original healing form when people begin to realize a higher potential into its enquiry and its benefits are nationally acclaimed.
A government holiday would mean that Holi’s thousands of participants right in Trinidad and Tobago would hopefully have access to government funding to help with the setting up of facilities enabling the public to have better access to water, restrooms and other necessities. Funding would help ensure the public’s safety as with any grand festival including security at the parks and grounds where there are plenty of women and children. It would certainly offset the cost of paying for the grounds, music, food and entertainment for the events. Unlike Carnival where the government spends almost a 100 million or more, Holi would barely take a fraction of that cost but the festival would certainly begin to generate more as it grows. Trinidad could hop onto the Holi train while the world is currently flirting heavily with the idea of Holi. Phagwa as a public holiday would soon bring an influx of tourists both Trinidadians living abroad and foreigners who want to celebrate but don’t feel like going all the way to India. Yet, this would not affect Holi’s sacred status especially if it is designated a Hindu festival much like Divali retains its signature feel of a religious festival still enjoyed by many.
Phagwa (Holi) is a transnational festival. On the day of celebration numerous groups of celebrators and musicians are travelling throughout the country singing, dancing and playing. Holi includes some of Trinidad and Tobago’s rarer folk song practices that can be saved and preserved for posterity through a recognition of the festival. Among many such things as tassa drumming, its own national treat, is the playing and singing of chowtaal, pichkaree, taan-singing and bhajans. Chowtaal, of a more religious aspect, is sung especially on Phagwa and hails from the indentured people’s Northern Indian origins in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar with their Bhojpuri Hindi dialect. Preserving chowtaal preserves the Bhojpuri Hindu dialect to the Caribbean region.
Due to its inherent ecstatic nature, the fun festivities of Phagwa is brewing an international phenomenon and catching the attention of the world. It’s a festival that harnesses the explosion of colours and thousands across the globe are flocking to play the colours of spring in this ancient Hindu festival. We have been lucky to celebrate it here in the Caribbean for almost 200 years. During Holi partakers feel more socially relaxed and the norm is overturned on social boundaries. There is a spirit of playfulness and inclusivity for all members of society to join the festivities. Naturally, this entices many non-Hindus to participate. While non-Hindus and Hindus alike need to be conscious of Holi’s history, Hindu origins and respect its spiritual and religious significance to the Hindu religion, Holi lends itself to crossing ethnic and religious boundaries in the manner it’s celebrated and how many others join in the fun. It is like many of the other festival and holidays in Trinidad and Tobago where tantamount participants partake. It is not only the Hindus who need access to better funding, facilities, security and a day of rest but also Phagwa’s many non-Hindu merrymakers as well.
Last but not least, Holi is holy. I recently presented my academic paper at the NCIC’s First International Phagwa Conference (FIPC) in Trinidad and Tobago. My paper was entitled, “the cultural appropriation, secularization, sacrilege, desecration and desacrilisation of Phagwa (Holi).” At this conference over 65 international scholars presented their work. Clearly the Hindu festival of Holi (as it is renowned globally) is not only generating international academic interest but it is trending towards a global phenomenon. As Holi grows it will have problems. One of the best ways to stop the hijacking of a religious festival and respect its origins is to make it a national holiday or a globally recognized day like International Yoga Day was done in India under PM Narendra Modi. Yoga continues to face many such problems with non-Hindus trying to detach and dispossess Hindus of yoga’s Hindu genesis with a host of appropriation and atrocity literature.
Safeguarding Holi against such degradations and denigrations requires a national public holiday. Hindus and their institutions, with the help of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago could easily deflect that mounting pressure on Holi to secularize and desacralise (to remove the sacred or religious status) by officially recognizing the Hindu festival. Trinidad will stand out in the world in recognizing Holi as a national holiday. Our neighbors in Guyana and Suriname have already made Holi a public holiday. Let us follow suit.
The author/writer takes the opportunity in this article as I did at the NCIC conference on March 13th 2021 to make an official verbal and written academic request to the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to designate Holi a public holiday. Holi’s recognition as a national festival celebrating and establishing its indigenous Hindu identity impedes further desacralisation while harnessing all its incredible output previously outlined for all to experience. The people of Trinidad and Tobago are pioneering in music, culture and other arts, its people can lead the way in creating a national holiday for Phagwa that benefits everyone and maintains Holi’s Hindu spiritual ethos.
Nisha Ramracha is a Trinidadian-American historian and classical archaeologist with who has completed her graduate education in Classical Archaeology of Greece and Rome/Religion/Late Antiquity/ Ancient Languages and Islamic Studies. Her research concentrates on Alexander the Great, ancient monuments, military strategy and ancient Greek coinage. She also focuses on Indology, Indo-Caribbean history and Hinduism. Nisha has done excavations and conferences internationally. She is also a writer, singer and adventurer.