The festival with many meanings

As Phagwah quickly approaches, most Guyanese (Hindu or not) are eagerly looking forward to the coming celebrations. For the general public, the festival usually includes numerous Phagwah melas, at which patrons can be regaled by various art forms, such as singing and dancing, and playing Phagwah at public sites, such as the Everest sports ground, or the National Stadium. Some schools, like Queen’s College, even have their own Phagwah celebrations, such as a show. For the religious, Phagwah includes going to temple, fasting, and, significantly, the burning of Holika.

The story of Phagwah, although probably well known by most Hindus, is not necessarily known to the public. There are a few variants related to the festival. The first, perhaps most popular, one is that of the over-arching triumph of good over evil, and the legend associated with this – the story of Prahalad. The legend goes that Prahalad was a devotee of Lord Vishnu, but his father, King Hiranyakashyap, believed that he, the king, should be worshipped as God, and was furious that his son had become devoted to someone else. After unsuccessfully trying to wean Prahalad from his devotion, the king ordered that his own son be burnt on a pyre by his sister Holika. Holika had been gifted in that fire could not harm her. However, miraculously, when the fire died away, Holika had been reduced to ashes and Prahalad sat unharmed. It is explained that the fact that Prahalad was unharmed despite all odds is symbolic of good triumphing over evil. This is why on the night before Holi, pyres are lit at different temples.

A less known origin story of Phagwah focuses on the love of Radha and Krishna. In the legend, young Krishna bemoaned that he was very dark, and was upset that Radha was much fairer than he was. His mother, consoling him, told him that he could colour Radha’s face whichever colour he wanted. Taking her advice, Krishna applied coloured pigments to Radha’s face so that she could be the same as he was. Krishna played pranks on the gopis (cowherds) and would apply colour on them and spray them with water from pichkaris. This is the reason why on Phagwah people play with coloured powders and spray each other with water. In some parts of India, a palanquin with idols of Radha and Krishna is paraded through the streets.

Another story of Holi is that of the sacrifice of Kamadeva. In this version, Sati, daughter of King Daksha, was enamoured with Shiva, and refused to marry anyone else, to the disdain of her father. Once she did marry Shiva, ties with her family weakened, and she denounced herself completely from them one fateful night. Her father had planned a ritual sacrifice and invited all of their family. She rationalised that her lack of invitation had been an oversight, and she decided to go anyways. Upon entering the celebration, she and her husband were ridiculed by her father until, finally, Sati announced that since her father had given her this body, she no longer wanted to be associated with it, and as a result, she entered a deep trance until she ignited. Shiva, upon hearing this news, was furious and then entered deep meditation, renouncing all work. This, of course, threw the world out of balance, so Sati was reborn in the shape of Paravati and began to try to win Shiva’s affection. This proved futile, and so she invoked the help of Kamadeva, the “Indian Cupid god”, who shot a love arrow into Shiva’s heart. Disturbed from his trance, Shiva opened his third eye and incinerated Kamadeva. It is said that on the day of Holi, Kamadeva sacrificed himself for the good of all beings. Later, upon realising his mistake, Shiva granted Kamadeva immortality, but he was made invisible, making him a representation of true love as opposed to lust. To this day, on Holi, people still make offerings to Kamadeva to show their gratitude.

These are just a few of the stories associated with the celebration of Holi. Knowing the meaning behind the things that we do help us have greater appreciation and respect for these traditions. That being said, I hope you all have a great Phagwah and enjoy the festival to its fullest!