Holi – Phagwah

Holi – Phagwah

New Haven, Guyana – March 17, 2014

The ancient Hindu spring festival of colors is known as Holi or Phagwah. In those countries which celebrate Phagwah, one risks getting smeared with colors if leaving the house; especially when wearing light-colored clothing.
The festival date can move from year to year based on 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, the fire consumed her but not her son. 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 symbolize spring’s emergence in all of its beautiful glory. To celebrate, people throw various colors onto others. Some even use the ashes from the previous night’s 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.

The large bundle of dried palm fronds to the right of the white canopy would later become the Holi night fire.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 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.

There was a full moon for the Holi night.

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.

Cars and pedestrians pass by the fire location.

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 horns of the passing vehicles further punctuated the din. Straining to see, I could make out the start of the bonfire at the bottom of the pile.

People preparing to light the Holi fire.

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 see the embers. Luckily, many of the structures nearby are 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 fire begins rather small.

The Holi fire quickly grew in intensity.
The height reached by the flames was incredible.
Vehicles continue to pass by the Holi fire.
At times, the fire was quite intense.
One can only imagine the heat generated by the Holi fire. It is surprising that the white canopy did not catch on fire.
A wider view of the Holi fire and spectators.
As the fire began to die down, embers were carried away by the wind. Luckily, no other fires started as a result of the embers.

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.

Before participating in Phagwah.

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 woman staffing a booth selling colors. We stopped and bought five boxes. They were about $1 per box, or $200GD.

Color for use during Phagwah.
Color for use during Phagwah.
Color for use during Phagwah.
Color for use during Phagwah.

As we were driving toward our home, we stumbled across the Indian Cultural Centre. That 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 challenging 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.

A Phagwah dance troupe was kind enough to pose for a photograph.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.

Leslie adding our color purchases to the community color palates.
People having fun during Phagwah.

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.

Dancers in white.
A band of musicians performing during Phagwah ceremonies.
This woman prepared to perform.

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 terrific to watch.

A group performing a traditional dance.
Another shot of a traditional dance.
As one can see, Phagwah is a very colorful celebration.
All of the women performed masterfully.

The last performance we watched was a musical 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 unique sound. They sang as they played.

A musical duo performs.
The performers under one canopy and the spectators under another canopy.
Leslie before departing the Phagwah ceremony.
You humble author a bit more colorful than when he arrived.
After participating in Phagwah.

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 placed the towels in front of us to keep from coloring our seat belts.
Cleaning up when we arrived home took a little doing. As I write this, we both still have some residual color on our skin. We threw our old, stained clothing into the garbage.
Happy Holi!!

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