Phagwah in NYC, India and Caribbean


By Vishnu Bisram

As I travel around India from Delhi to Madya Pradesh to Rajasthan to Gujarat to Bombay to Uttar Pradesh and to Bihar, and indeed all across northern India over the last week, people are celebrating on Friday or were making preparations to celebrate Holi in the preceding days.

It is called Holi as opposed to Phagwah in New York City or Guyana and other parts of the Caribbean. Planning and preparation for the festival in India are similar to what is done in NYC or Guyana or the Caribbean societies where Phagwah is observed. It is a fascination or riot of colors almost impossible to describe – have never seen so many colors in one location. Faces are smeared with every imaginable combination of abeer or abrack.

Pyres of Holika, to be lit on Thursday midnight, were observed everywhere. Almost every street had a mound of dried wood of a conical shape that would be set ablaze; in fact in Azamgarh, where many Indo-Caribbeans trace their roots, they were lit between 9 PM and midnight on Thursday. Setting the pyres (Holika) on fire symbolizes the destruction of evil which is the meaning of Holi. It is a national holiday in India and is perhaps the largest festival after Diwali in India and the Indian diaspora. Schools and government offices as well as all businesses are closed on Friday. People who are employed away from home, returned to their homes or villages to celebrate the occasion with families.

Celebrating Holi with friends and family in India

On the streets, schools, and colleges as well as in offices, people were seen rubbing abeer (powder) on each other’s face long before Holika was burnt. The last day of classes was on Wednesday as students were sent home for an extended holiday weekend. Everywhere on Thursday, people were seen celebrating with much fervor. Thursday was called Chota Holi as it precedes the actual day of the celebration. Holi is one of the most widely celebrated festivals across the country with workers returning home to celebrate with families irrespective of how far they are stationed from home.

There is a multitude of colors of powders on the faces as well as as on clothing. Mounds of abeer of every color imaginable were seen in markets everywhere I traveled. Youngsters also had spray guns and older folks had colorful hats. Markets were teeming with shoppers purchasing related items for the festivals — vegetables, new clothing, fruits, spray guns, talc powder, and abeer. Grapes and guavas are plentiful as this is the season for both. In some cities, people celebrated with gusto with an even grander celebration planned for Friday. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where most Guyanese trace their roots, chowtaal music were heard at every street or home. TV stations also aired Bollywood scripted songs. And children were smearing abeer on each other’s face or clothing or hair. I, myself was smeared by adults and kids on the streets. More are in store on Friday. Smearing is similar as in Guyana — on gthe faces and hair. Liquid was not used on Thursday but much will be used on Friday similar to Guyana. Ashes of the burnt pyre will be mixed in water and poured on revelers — a similar practice in Guyana going back since the time of the indentureds.

The festival is celebrated with the same kinds of food we consume in Guyana on the day — ghoja, kheer, ladoo, gulab jamun, channa, matar peas, dhal puri or matar puri, alou curry, phulourie, pakora, bara, bhaji, among other items. There must be a minimum of eight items. I was entertained at homes in Bihar and UP where a variety of vegetarian dishes, dhal and rice were served – very spicey but tasty.

Overall, it is been a very enjoyable Holi festival in India similar to Guyana or NYC or Trinidad or Suriname — people of all ethnicities and religions participate and share in the joy.