The essence of Phagwah – navigating the tide of time

By Ashraf Dabi

Over the years, Phagwah has evolved as one of the many holidays in Guyana that are not limited to the religious festivities from which they initially emerged. The diversity of the Caribbean (especially Guyanese society) has a way of erasing religious and cultural barriers, allowing persons of various religious backgrounds – a cross-section of ethnicities and different creeds – to integrate and participate in celebration of traditions such as the Hindu festival of Holi. However, it is evolutions like these that often tamper with the rich, deep-rooted origin of cultural practices, often resulting in the deterioration or misinterpretation of the true significance and symbolism of these cultural practices.

Has Phagwah suffered the disintegration of time and societal advancement? Do we really know the meaning and aspects of the celebration of Holi? It is safe to say that Guyanese have been, on many occasions, subjected to the famous story of the religious origin of Phagwah. Whether it was taught at home, enacted in school, or recited at the temple, the story of Prahlad’s faith and of that faith being his weapon against his aunt, the evil Holika, is surely well known. The burning of Holika effigies to celebrate the triumph of good over evil, and the using of the ash to create a paste that is used for the playing of Holi is merely one (but perhaps the most significant) account of the origin of Phagwah.

The moment Krishna approaches Radha and colors her face is the start of their companionship, and it is celebrated as Holi by Hindus everywhere
The moment Krishna approaches Radha and colors her face is the start of their companionship, and it is celebrated as Holi by Hindus everywhere

However, there are other sagas associated with the ‘festival of colours’. In keeping with its religious origin, the legend of Lord Krishna playfully applying colour to Radha is another account that is said to have initiated the prank of smearing others with colourful powders and pastes.

And that aside, there is also a traditional take on the celebrations, with the beginning of spring being an instigating factor of the festival of Holi. The arrival of spring has been traditionally honoured in farming villages of India by using the brightly coloured blossoms to create powders used to celebrate the arrival of a new season.

Even with several explanations of the origin of Phagwah, how often do the persons participating in the throwing of water and powder recognize and honour the reasons which brought about such activities? Furthermore, are these mythological ties to the festivities still significant and relevant to the twenty-first century?

While some families maintain the symbolism of the original nature in their observation of Phagwah, other communities participate in a national festivity. The various aspects of the celebration have evidently withered away over the years, with some festivities no longer being as grand or as anticipated as before. However, there are also new traditions that have emerged in the celebration of Holi in Guyana.

Tradition Phagwah celebrations in Guyana consisted of dance, music, songs and colours. Families and friends wore white outfits and participated in the throwing of water in the morning, while the smearing of powder followed later in the day. A special type of folk songs, called Chowtals, were sung during the course of the festival, with music from the dholak (a hand drum) and the majeera (cymbals or percussion instruments) accompanying the singing. Special foods were prepared, which often included the traditional ‘seven curry’ and sweet meats as Hindus observed their religious prayers and fasting.

However, contemporary Phagwah takes on the atmosphere of carnival. A variety of coloured powders is added to water to prepare the mixture. On the eventful day, colours are applied to the others in such a way that they become unrecognizable. There are rare instances when Chowtal music is used, but the preparation of Indian delicacies has been maintained. Cultural shows, called Melas, were frequent in the past years, as the preparations for the holiday drew closer. However, in more recent years, these Melas have lessened, but events and locations known for large gatherings of wet and colourful Phagwah players have been established, replacing the groups parading through the villages to celebrate with their neighbours.

Like many other holidays in Guyana and across the world, Phagwah has evolved, leaving behind some of the core aspects traditionally attached to the celebrations. Nonetheless, it remains one of the more anticipated national festivities, and continues to unite various groups in the playing with powder and water. However, with the tide of time, much of what the holiday once represented has been forgotten, despite efforts from cultural and religious organizations to revive and sustain the true spirit of Phagwah.


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