Our Phagwah Tradition

India has Holi, Guyana has Phagwah.

For those of you unfamiliar with Holi, it’s the Hindu festival of colours that signifies several time markers including: 1. spring; 2. harvest time and; 3. that time some arrogant un-killable king tried to murder his son by having him sit in the lap of his un-killable demoness sister only to have her die instead due to the prince’s devotion to Lord Vishnu (= good triumphing over evil). I’m going to go along with the guess of my father as to why we call it Phagwah here in Guyana – it happens in the month of Phagun.

What it really translates to: a super fun day when things get really really messy.

What it usually involves is water, abeer (dye), coloured powder and water mixed with coloured powder. See? Messy.

Powder being sold just outside the Stadium.

I’ll never forget one particular Phagwah morning from my childhood. A bunch of us were camping in together in the same house. Early in the morning, my uncle knocks on the front door so my aunt goes to answer it. Splash! One full bucket of water overturned on her head. On the front stoop. Uh, he may have gotten cussed out that morning, I don’t remember (I was too busy laughing).

Now, my family’s Christian and Phagwah is technically a Hindu holiday but, in this country, this festival belongs to the whole nation. Phagwah is played by people of all ethnicities and religions and classes and, best of all, social circles. I never really noticed that as a child but, thinking back, it seemed like what little barriers to communication that still existed among strangers here (in the country where everyone “minds” everyone else’s business) disappeared during Phagwah. You play with anybody who’s playing – whether you know them or not.

As an adult, I find it’s still the case. I went to the National Stadium where GT&T was holding a Phagwah Mela deal even though my tourist/remigrant self felt it was too commercial to be “authentic” (whatever that means). Well. As soon as I arrived, I got welcomed by two green women. They smeared powder on me and hugged me and wished me a “Happy Phagwah!” I have no idea who they were but I felt welcome immediately. Not to mention the fact that it looked like half the country showed up at the Stadium. It was packed and colourful and chaotic. I loved it.

The National Stadium.

I couldn’t help but compare it to Mash which was just two weeks ago. Somehow, Phagwah seemed more of a show of culture and national unity than Mash. Maybe it’s cause Mash has participants and spectators and, let’s face it, there is a lack of ethnic diversity in the participants besides the obvious ethnic focused floats. Phagwah involved everyone. For instance, the night before I went to Upscale’s poetry night and saw the visiting African American poet Black Ice perform. He was suave and funny and charming. On Phagwah, I saw him covered in pink, grinning sheepishly like he was enjoying himself/wasn’t sure what the heck was going on. Also different about the day – the few putting on a show for us on stage weren’t really to focus of the day. We were. Also, at least at the time I was there, there was less of a carnival feel to it. That is, it wasn’t just a big outdoor theme party. People weren’t falling over drunk and there was no bacchanal. Just running around, playing, hugging, laughing, dancing. Am not a huge fan of chutney but it was fun to see everyone try on their Indian dance moves for the Bollywood tracks.

This man's got moves.

Another Phagwah plus: seven curry. I dunno if seven curry belongs to Hindus or what but we never made it at home (and still don’t) growing up so I’m used to only seeing the mouthwatering elusive seven curry at jandis and weddings. What is seven curry? I’ll save that for another post but just know that it’s vegetarian and it tastes better when you eat it in a giant lotus leaf. I couldn’t believe there was a seven curry stand at the Stadium. When I got my leaf full, I sat on the ground because there weren’t any more available chairs. This was fine by me but some uncle connected to the seven curry stand gave me a chair despite my protests. Now, that’s community.

Seven Curry!

I tried to avoid water as much as possible because I didn’t want to be cold and my camera’s not water proof but didn’t mind the onslaught of powder. So many rainbows…

Took a bus back to Stabroek to grab a taxi to the Kendra in Prasad Nagar which was, I had been told, the place to be. Well! It was not even a quarter of the size (space and crowd) of the Stadium but it made up for it in colour. ‘Intense’ was the word I kept using over and over. It looked like a vat of purple had thrown up all over the place and on everyone in it. Smaller crowd, smaller stage. Got to see the dancing and singing up close. Said hullo to the multi-coloured Prime Minister who seemed to be having a blast dancing away to some Indian music. Was greatly amused when a Rastaman took centre stage and began singing Chamak Challo (very well) and when a group of young boys on the floor behind me began recreating what I assume was the choreography of the music video seeing as how they were all in sync.

The Kendra.

 Was gonna go home after an hour of that but the day wasn’t over yet – got to ride in the back of the pick up truck of a friend of my boyfriend’s. It was less than ten minutes long but put a nice cap on an awesome day because I had been staring longingly earlier at the pickup trucks with the people throwing powder and water on pedestrians. Next year am definitely somehow getting my hands on a truck. When we got to the friend’s house we were rewarded with – that’s right – more seven curry! And sweeeeeeet rice.

Thoroughly enjoying the back of the pickup!

And this is why Phagwah gets 5 gold stars.

Enjoy the pictures here and here.


11 thoughts on “Our Phagwah Tradition

  1. In Hindi, it is “Holi”. In Bhorjpuri (a dialect from Bhihar, north India, where many Indo-Guyanese’s ancestors came from), it is called “Phagwa.”

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