Holi – Phagwah

Holi – Phagwah
New Haven, Guyana

New Haven, Guyana


The ancient Hindu spring festival of colors is known as Holi or Phagwah. In those countries where Phagwah is celebrated, one risks getting smeared with colors if leaving the house; especially when wearing light colored clothing.

The festival date is not fixed since it is set near the vernal equinox. The real themes of Phagwah are spring and the victory of good over evil. The last full moon of the Hindu month Phalguna sets the event.

The eve of Phagwah begins with what is known as a Holika bonfire. Holika was the evil daughter of an evil king. He was evil, in part, because he thought he was the only God and should be worshiped by all. One of his sons refused to worship him so the king punished him. Somehow Holika was able to trick the son into sitting with her on a pyre. In the end, she was burned while the son was saved. The Hindu God, Vishnu killed the evil king. So, the bonfire symbolizes the victory of good over evil.

The following day, Holi or Phagwah gets into full and colorful swing. The colors used actually symbolize spring’s emergence in all of its colorful glory. Various colors are thrown on others in celebration. Some even use the ashes from the bonfire for the black color.

The day before Holi, Leslie and I noticed people making a large pile of what looked like old palm fronds in the vacant field across the highway. It dawned on me we had “front row” seats for that night’s Holi bonfire.

It was just after 19:30 when we stepped onto our front terrace to watch the festivities. One of the first things I noticed is there was in fact a full moon rising through the clouds. The other thing I noticed was the sounds of drums coming from under the tent which had been set up at the site. The sound of the drums seemed to be at a constant crescendo. It kept us on the edge of our seats for quite some time.

I passed my time “painting with light” as cars drove on the highway between our vantage point and the bonfire location. The crowd for the bonfire continued to build as did the sound of the drums.

Finally, at nearly 20:20, a group of men gathered at the base of the soon-to-be bonfire. The drums were beating steadily. We could hear the crowd that had gathered. The din was further punctuated by the horns of the passing vehicles. Straining to see, I could just make out the start of the bonfire at the bottom of the pile.

In no time at all, the fire engulfed the pile. At its height, the flames had to have been nearly 45 feet tall. I imagine the heat was fairly intense for those in the crowd. We could not feel the heat from our terrace. However, we could definitely see the embers. Luckily, many of the structures nearby are made of concrete block with metal roofs, so there were no other fires in the area.

As the fire died down we decided to call it a day.

The next morning, Phagwah, we both dressed for colors. Each of us had on a white top. That is like shouting for others to pelt you with colors.

Mid-morning, we headed to the Indian Cultural Centre. Unfortunately, I had been shown an incorrect location a few days before. We sat in the car at that location for nearly an hour before we decided to leave. On one street we found a lady manning a booth selling colors. We stopped and bought five boxes. They were about $1 per box, or $200GD.

As we were driving toward our home, we stumbled across the Indian Cultural Centre. That actually worked out to our benefit. Unlike last week, this time we arrived after the President of Guyana instead of waiting for him to arrive.

Shortly after we arrived we were both doused with a white powder. That made it difficult to take a photograph of a dance troupe. Luckily I had prepared for the worst. I had covered my camera with a plastic grocery bag, leaving a hole for the lens. Even still, I did end up with some color on my camera. I was ultimately able to clean it off.

After the photograph we made it to the colors table. When we got there, we donated the boxes we had purchased. At the same time we were both getting pelted with colors by those we knew and by strangers.

A large tent had been set up. We found some seats near the front. The program began with a group performing a spring themed dance. As they spun their white and gold dresses billowed at the bottom. It was a beautiful sight.

The following group of dancers also had a spring theme. Additionally, their costumes were much more colorful. Even though I do not understand the Hindi words, the program was amazing to watch.

The last performance we watched was a musician duo. One man played an instrument that seemed to be a combination of an accordion, a piano, and a wooden box. I don’t know what it was but it had a very unique sound. They sang as they played.

When we made it back to our vehicle, we opened the doors and carefully retrieved the towels we had brought with us. Since our backs were not too bad we actually placed the towels in front of us to keep from coloring our seat belts.

Cleaning up when we arrived home took a little doing. In fact, as I write this, we both still have some residual color on our skin. Needless to say, we threw our old, stained clothing into the garbage.

Happy Holi!!


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