Phagwah – a festival that breaks barriers

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In Guyana, Phagwah is one of the festivals that brings everyone together. It brings together Guyanese across all racial, religious and social backgrounds.

Traditionally, in Guyana, there are mass celebrations where hundreds of people gather to douse each other in water and apply colourful powder. However, COVID-19 has changed that and now gatherings are almost prohibited.

The festival of colours – even in a pandemic – is still breaking barriers and bringing people together.

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You know Phagwah is around the corner when you see brightly coloured powders for sale but nothing puts you in the mood more than hearing the distinctive voice of Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachan singing “Rang barse bheege chunar wali, rang barse”.

The song from the movie Silsila is synonymous with Phagwah celebrations in Guyana and even further afield. Basically, translating to “colours are showering,” rang barse is perhaps the most well-known phagwah song among Guyanese despite their ethnic or religious background.

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Phagwah is a community’s exuberant expression of joy to welcome the warmth of spring. In a reflection of nature’s abundance, Hindus celebrate with bursts of colour, camaraderie and shared abandon. It begins on Purnima, full moon day, in the Hindu month of Phalguna (February/March) and lasts for as long as 16 days.

On the day of Holi, people celebrate by playing, dancing and running in the streets. Water pistols are filled with coloured water and squirted on family, friends and strangers alike. Dye powders and water balloons are a big part of the play. The wise wear old clothes, usually white, in anticipation of the mess! Virtually anything goes.

Etiquette on Holi requires that one accept all overtures with an open heart, burying grievances to begin relationships afresh. People of all walks of life mingle and greet, applying vermilion on each other’s foreheads in an uninhibited exchange of goodwill.

Love, positive values and goodness are celebrated on Holi. Their triumphs over divisiveness and negative forces have been reinforced in legends, such as that of Holika and her brother Prahlad. The famous king Hiranyakashipu had earned a boon that made him virtually indestructible.

Blinded by this power, he thought he was God, the only being worthy of worship. His young son Prahlad was devoted to Lord Vishnu and refused to obey his father.

Infuriated, the king devised the cruellest punishments. In one attempt, Prahlad’s evil aunt Holika, who possessed the power to withstand fire, tricked him into climbing a burning pyre with her. Prahlad’s love for true Divinity protected him from the flames. Holika burned while Prahlad lived. The bonfire of Holi is symbolic of this victory of good over evil.

Coinciding with the advent of spring, the festival symbolises growth and fertility of the land for many Indians. Some Jains and Sikhs also partake in the festivities. The vibrant pigments used were traditionally made of ground vermillion, turmeric and neem, but synthetic pigments are common now.

Legend has it that Krishna noticed one day how much lighter Radha’s complexion was than His own. His mother playfully suggested that He smear Radha’s cheeks with colour to make Her look like Him, which Krishna did. The strong-willed Radha gleefully retaliated, and merry chaos ensued.

Another legend has it that Krishna celebrated this festival with His friends and the gopis. They danced and frolicked, filling the air with colour in a joyous welcome of spring.

In keeping with the essence of Phagwah, Guyanese across the spectrum take the time out to enjoy this festival. It is a time when the motto “One People, One Nation, One Destiny” is truly lived. Despite differences throughout the year, Phagwah day is one that would see Guyanese smearing each other with colours or dousing with water as they all celebrate the triumph of good over evil.

Evidence of the ability of Phagwah to break the ethnic barriers can be seen at the different melas, street corners and even in the homes. It is truly a Guyanese thing to see non-Hindus preparing sweetmeats and having a ball of a time as Hindus would.