Phagwah denotes a kaleidoscopic and unified celebration which has been a traditional festival in Guyana, rooted since the arrival of indentured immigrants to the shores of Guyana from India in 1838.
Since then, the practice has been alive in communities across the country – a highly anticipated national holiday which unites people of all backgrounds. In Guyana, Phagwah is much more than a celebration; it is a colourful explosion that can only be experienced to realise what is resonated among one another on this day.
On Thursday, Guyanese from all spectrums would have celebrated the national holiday with their family and friends. The day began typically with persons venturing out of their homes to visit persons within their neighbourhood and conveying good wishes. Others would even travel far distances to greet family and loved ones.
A scented, coloured liquid called Abeer is sprinkled and brightly dyed powder called Abrack is smeared on their faces. Throughout the day, sweet meats would also be shared along with traditional Indian dishes.
In India, Phagwah is seen primarily as the welcoming of spring after many winter months and also the ending of the Hindu calendar in the month of Phalgun or March. On the religious side, it is the recognition of good over evil that is linked to this festival that is the ancient story of Prahad and his father, King Hiranyakashipu.
The story unfolds when Hiranyakashipu demanded that the dwellers of his kingdom worship him instead of God. Prahald, however, refused to do so which resulted in many efforts by the King to kill his son.
The King had a sister called Holika, who could not be harmed by fire, so she was ordered to sit in a pyre with Prahalad so that he could be killed. This backfired and she was burnt to ashes while the young boy escaped unharmed.
For this, it is customary that 40 days before Holi is celebrated, a tree representing Holika is planted and burned in the form of a bonfire on the eve of the festival, signifying the destruction of evil. The Holika Dahan ceremony is usually witnessed by worshippers before the celebration of the spring festival the following day.
Over at the Swami Vivekananda Cultural Centre in Bel Air, the Indian High Commission kick-started the event with a series of multicultural performances in the company of members of the diplomatic corp, Government officials, Ministers, parliamentarians and the general public.
Children of all ages were primarily hooked on the vivid shades of red, blue, green and purple while others filled their water guns with colourful liquid and awaited the arrival of persons who showed up in white attire. Within an instance, they too became unrecognisable and joined in the animation.
Indian High Commissioner to Guyana, Venkatachalam Mahalingan related that throughout his years in the country, Guyana is seen as a rainbow nation, where there is a combination of all cultures. According to him, this custom which started in Northern India, has made its way not only on the southern side, but to countries such as Guyana, Malaysia, Fiji and Trinidad and Tobago.
Mahalingam reminisced during his last Holi in Guyana by saying, “Guyana is called a rainbow nation and it is a rainbow nation truly. Guyana is a small globe within a globe. Undoubtedly, Holi is a great unifying force as it is a day to forget and forgive.”
Chowtaal singing, primarily sung during this period, were also performed with an accompaniment of drums and jaals; two flat metal bases sometimes held together with strings.
While being showered with powder of all hues, former President Bharrat Jagdeo was also among those who recognised that the spring festival has evolved significantly to one that is celebrated by everyone.
“My message is to wish all Guyanese a happy Holi, especially Hindus. For them, this festival has a special religious significance. For others, it’s more a part of our national festival as we’re pleased that everyone is enjoying it,” former President Bharrat Jagdeo told the gathering.
His words were followed by Foreign Affairs Minister Carl Greenidge who stated that, “Phagwah has become a vehicle for promoting greater trust and understanding. When examined more closely, I think many of the differences which affect our society can be mended through greater understanding, trust and cooperation.”
People’s Progressive Party Presidential Candidate Irfaan Ali also expressed his wishes to the public, noting that it is also a time for reflection.
“I hope that the colour of love, the colour of unity, the colour of togetherness will be with us and that we use this celebration of Holi 2019 to reflect on the country, on the future and the prospects of a better Guyana,” Ali said.
Drums playing classical music were accompanied by popular Holi music, bringing out the inner child in adults, who also spared no chance to enjoy themselves.
Meanwhile, other customary events included the grand culmination at the Providence Stadium, where thousands of persons would turn up for the social aspect of the event in the afternoon. There, the sound of drums filled the air along with speakers blasting Holi favourites, like the evergreen Rang Barse and Holi Khelay Raghubeera. This event continues to be the most-anticipated one and sees persons from all regions of the coast.
Others took the opportunity to head over to the Kala Utsav spectacle, organised by the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha. The family-oriented programme did not disappoint those who were up for immersing themselves in a sea of flamboyant colours. Some were completely drenched in Abeer, which completely stained their attire and bodies. The event, once hosted at the Dharmic Kendra, has been moved to a number of locations to facilitate a growing number of persons.
The joyous atmosphere was filled with live performances from the Dharmic Nritya Sangh dancers, all bedecked in bright spring colours and accompanied by other local artistes.
Apart from these distinct locations, streets were seemingly crowded with swarms of people, where this celebration would last for more than one day.
While this festival symbolises the triumph of good over evil, it also provides a sense of new beginnings as depicted with the blossoming of flowers during the spring season, leaving the gloomy winter days behind.