We have on several previous occasions alluded to the common features of various different traditional festivals and, in particular, those that are primarily religious. Important to the key features of interest are the great similarities to be found among them regardless of the distinctly different religions to which they belong. Many of these interesting characteristics which are excellent examples of the inter-festival commonalities are present in the Hindu Festival of Phagwah or Holi currently being celebrated in Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, India, the UK, North America and wherever there is a strong presence of the Indian diaspora.
These characteristics include the following. Although at the core deeply religious and consisting of acts of belief and sacred ritual, these traditional festivals have public manifestations. They are outreach extensions of the religion carrying messages which are at the same time expressions of religious belief and wider universal messages to humanity. These messages are sufficiently general to appeal to anyone and express themselves in ways that give them wide popular appeal. This public expression makes the festivals popular and attracts the participation of a wide range of unbelievers, so that they become national secular traditions as well. In this, they invariably make use of art, myth, symbol, literature, spectacle, drama and theatre. It also often happens that the celebration of the religious rites become amalgamated to secular practices which then become a part of the activities and fix the festival into the popular culture.
Holi or Phagwah fits very well into this pattern. The comments which follow make no claim or pretence at being any attempt to explain the Hindu religious practice and belief, although references to these cannot be avoided. Those profound complexities extend well beyond the scope of this brief interest in the public and cultural expressions of a traditional festival and a religious tradition. These include the employment of art.
True to one of the common patterns, Phagwah is religious ritual as well as a popular spring festival celebrated with great fun, frolic and gaiety with themes of rebirth, renewal, regeneration, rejuvenation and spiritual unity. These are manifested in the public displays of people decorating each other with Abrac and Abeer – coloured dyes, powder, water and coloured liquids.
Although I have seen diplomatic gatherings of high officials of state and members of high society at which these are dispensed with gentle pats, light caresses and token sprinklings, no doubt in an effort not to offend and to demonstrate the example that the celebration should be in considerate moderation, this is not the common practice. In keeping with the normal vigour of a spring festival the popular culture prefers exchanges of more fun and greater abandon. There it is a youthful frolic with more generous dousings and energetic applications of colour.
To be very frank about it, in Guyana the advice which is often given about caution and moderation is not entirely misplaced since this aspect of Phagwah is highly participatory and conflict is avoided by restricting the involvement only to those who have chosen to participate. I can recall walking through the street of a community and being approached by a small group of celebrants armed with a pail of water and a container of powder. They approached me uncertainly and asked politely whether they had my permission to include me in the game. Following my consent, they very gently administered a tiny brush of powder and a sprinkle of water quite like what I see among the diplomats, government ministers and high society. As they jogged away laughing and I continued my walk I thought to myself that this certainly did not feel like Phagwah.
This celebration of spring also contains the theme of spiritual rebirth that is sacred to the religion and is part of its symbolic outreach. But it also provides one of the very spectacular elements of the festival because of the sometimes splendid displays of colourful abeer and abrac loudly covering multitudes of people and garments. Other elements of public spectacle are related to the symbolic burning of Holika, which derives from the mythology. Again, there is a mixture of a public exhibition and religious ritual as large pyres are lit, sometimes generating a spectacular blaze around which the celebrants march while singing chowtal. They also roast fruits in this fire, including sugar cane and coconuts.
Although most of the activities of worship, chowtal singing, burning of Holi and the throwing of abrac and abeer are concentrated around three days, much longer celebrations are known in rural Guyana. There, the week-long observations include additional elements in which Phagwah shares commonalities with the public displays of other cultural traditions. The celebrants go from house to house singing chowtal and partaking in various refreshments, sometimes including liquids of a spirituous nature not necessarily approved by the religion. Of definite approval, however, is the sharing of sweetmeats with anyone, another significant outreach activity. The house-to-house serenading is known in other traditions like Parang in Trinidad, masquerade and the English mumming.
The elements of spectacle are symbolic and represent the ways in which the more popular and public elements, though part of the secular popular culture, help to spread the gospel of religious belief. An excellent example of this is the myth from which many of the symbols and rites derive. This is the story of the tyrannical king which celebrates the devotion to God shown by the boy Prahalad and his miraculous salvation .
King Hiranya Kayshapu possessed a boon from the gods which made him virtually invincible, but he was also consumed by the tragic flaw of overweening pride. He felt so great that he commanded all in his kingdom to worship him. But his own son Prahalad refused to obey, declaring to all that he would only worship the true God, who was not his father. This rebellion coming out of his own household embarrassed and infuriated the king, but no amount of threats would cause the boy to capitulate. Kayshapu, therefore ordered his son’s death. His sister Holika was also in possession of a boon. She could not be burnt by fire. The king ordered the lighting of a large pyre in which the boy was to be burnt. Holika took hold of her nephew and sat with him in the fire, but by a miracle, she perished and Prahalad came out unscorched.
The way the proud king met his end is even more interesting. His gift was that he could not be killed by man or beast. He could be killed neither by night nor day, indoors or outdoors, on the earth or in the air. What all of those add up to is that he just could not be killed at all. But his conqueror came dressed in a costume that could not be defined as either man or beast, he took hold of the king at dusk when it was neither day nor night and killed him on a balcony which was neither on the ground nor in the air, holding him in the doorway which was neither indoor nor outdoor.
This is similar to other myths and tales about kings overcome by pride. Like Macbeth, Kayshapu was misled by a false sense of security. Macbeth was assured by the deceptive witches that he could not be defeated until Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane; neither could he be harmed by any man that was born of woman. Since Birnam Wood was a forest and Dunsinane was a castle neither could move to “come to” the other. Likewise, since every man was “born of woman,” Macbeth was convinced that his defeat was impossible. Of course, his conqueror was Macduff, who had a Caesarean birth; “Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped,” and when he led his army to advance on Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane, they cut down large branches of the forest’s trees and held them in front of them in order to hide and disguise their advance. The forest was virtually moving to the castle.
Macbeth had declared, “I bear a charmed life, wh ich must not yield…” and similarly, Kayshapu felt eternally protected. This seems a common device in the different cultures used to bring down the mighty dictators. The Hindu story illustrates the fall of pride and the inevitable conquest of good over evil, messages that will appeal to non-Hindus and are indeed preached by other religions. It also demonstrates the rewards of unyielding faith and devotion as held by Prahalad in his refusal to depart from God. There is also the theme of sacrifice because the boy was prepared to risk his life for his belief. This is shared by Islam and demonstrated by the story of Ishmail and Ibrahim who were both willing to sacrifice in their obedience to God. That same story is also celebrated by Christian mythology which has several other similar tales.