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The Origins and Significance of Phagwah

Written by: Tiara Jade Chutkhan

Brought to the Caribbean by our East-Indian Hindu ancestors is Holi, or Phagwah as it’s commonly called. Phagwah is the Hindu Festival of Colours celebrating the arrival of Spring. The festival also signifies the triumph of good over evil, a bountiful harvest and fertility.

Phagwah began at a time when India was facing a serious drought that threatened the various crops farmers relied on to feed and support their families. When the rain eventually came down, drenching the dried crops, the farmers were overjoyed and came out into the fields to play in the water, throwing it on one another. Shortly after that day they were able to start reaping their bountiful harvest. In India, the arrival of Spring was often honoured in farming villages where families would crush the bright blossoms to create powders. These powders were meant to add colour to the environment that was left dull from Winter.

In the Caribbean, Phagwah was one of the few holidays Indian indentured labourers were given time off to celebrate. It is now recognized as a public holiday.

Celebrations for Phagwah begin on Basant Panchmi, the fifth day of the bright half of the Hindu month Omagh. Keeping with the ancient tradition, devotees pay homage to Saraswati Devi, the goddess of knowledge, and a castor oil tree is planted as a symbolic act. Special forms of music and songs are also associated with the festival. During a 40 day period from Basant Panchmi to Holika Dahan, you can expect to hear chowtal singing (Indian folk songs usually sung as a duet) from Basant Panchmi night until eight days after Phagwah. Jati renditions and bhajans are also popular.

Holika Dahan, the burning of the Holika (castor oil tree) takes place on Phalgun Purnima or the full moon day of the Hindu month Phalgun. On this day, a pyre is built around the castor oil tree that was planted and ignited. The ash obtained from this ritual is called Bhumi Hari. On Phagwah morning, a member of the Mandir would collect the tree ash and smear it on the bodies of those present before they bathe. This act represents renewal, hope and confidence in the year ahead.

There was once a demon king by the name of King Hiranyakashyapu who won over the Kingdom of Earth through years of prayers. He was the King of the demonic Asuras and according to the Bhagavata Purana he was granted a boon (wish) that he could be killed by neither a human being nor an animal, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither at day nor at night, neither by astra (projectile weapons) nor by any shastra (handheld weapons), and neither on land nor in water or air.

After he received his boon, Hiranyakashyapu became so egoistic that he commanded everybody in his kingdom to worship only him. But to his great disappointment, his son, Prahlad became an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu-the sustainer of the universe and refused to worship his father.

Hiranyakashyapu tried several ways to kill his son Prahlad but Lord Vishnu saved him every time. Finally, he asked his sister, Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her lap. For, Hiranyakashyapu knew that Holika had a boon, whereby, she could enter the fire unscathed.

Treacherously, Holika coaxed young Prahlad to sit in her lap and she herself took her seat in a blazing fire. The legend has it that Holika had to pay the price of her sinister desire by her life. Holika was not aware that the boon worked only when she entered the fire alone.

Prahlad, who kept chanting the name of Lord Vishnu while in the fire with his aunt, came out unharmed, as the lord blessed him for his extreme devotion. Thus, Holi derives its name from Holika. And, is celebrated as a festival of victory of good over evil.

Holi is also celebrated as the triumph of a devotee. As the legend depicts that anybody, howsoever strong, cannot harm a true devotee and those who dare torture a true devotee of god shall be reduced to ashes.

After the fire destroyed the evil Holika, King Hiranyakashyapu became enraged and attempted to kill Prahlad himself. However, Vishnu, the god who appears as an avatar (form) to restore Dharma in Hindu beliefs, took the form of Narasimha – half human and half lion, at dusk (when it was neither day nor night), took Hiranyakashyapu at a doorstep (which was neither indoors nor outdoors), placed him on his lap (which was neither land, water nor air), and then eviscerated and killed the king with his lion claws (which were neither a handheld weapon nor a launched weapon).

There are other interpretations of Phagwah including the legend of Lord Krishna playfully applying colour to Radha.

In the Caribbean, the largest Phagwah celebrations can be found in Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana, where the largest Hindu populations are. In the weeks approaching the festival, local businesses start promoting “sweet meats”, Indian sweet vegetarian dishes. Some of the dishes commonly eaten are vermicelli cake, mithai, gooseberry syrup, fudge and jalebi.

People from all backgrounds join in on the celebration. The most notable part of the festival is when everyone gathers, dressed in all white, and douses each other with full buckets of water and sprays abeer, also called gulal (colourful powder) from their water guns. The vibrant colours used all have different meanings. Red, for example, reflects wishes of love, passion and fertility; Yellow is a colour happiness, meditation and peace; Pink symbolizes youth, good health and playfulness.

Phagwah is an ancient, beautiful celebration that represents friendship, merriment and love. By continuing to celebrate and share our traditions, we will keep this festival alive for generations to come.

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