It is always interesting to study traditional festivals, their place in a society and how they are continually affected by time and geography. Of increasing influence on these festivals in contemporary times is the popular culture, a very powerful social factor in the Caribbean today.
A good example of these is Phagwah which is celebrated as a national holiday in Guyana tomorrow. What happens tomorrow, however, is only the culmination of a series of events and activities that make up the Phagwah festival. But still, many persons refer to the long line of observances that run up until today as ‘Pre-Phagwah,’ suggesting that they are parts of the preparation for the celebrated day or things that are done before the actual festival itself. However, most of these go beyond ‘preparation’ and are integral components of the tradition and practice, making it not one day, but a full festival of much longer duration.
Phagwah is widely known as a religious festival observed in India where it originated, and around the world in the Indian diaspora wherever Hindus live. It is also called Holi. This festival is sacred to the Hindu religion and has all the characteristics of religious festivals that have private rituals exclusive to devotees as well as a large public outreach and exhibition that transcend the circle of believers and extend to the wider population.
Phagwah or Holi is thus a Guyanese national festival; it falls into categories other than the religious. It is a traditional festival, a cultural festival, and a calendar festival, and in some of these categorisations, it is secular and even a popular festival. This means that while it is tied to Hindu devotion, it transcends sacred practice and is celebrated for other reasons. These categories overlap considerably in definition and meaning. A calendar festival means it is held on a specific date annually; but that date is often significant – it happens on that date because of its origins, or some tradition, myth or event or because of history. Traditional festivals are rooted in tradition, sometimes within the indigenous traditions of social history or culture or of religious practice/background. Such traditions are often ‘cultural’ and cultural traditions have significance for the culture of a nation or arise out of cultural beliefs or practice; so there are cultural festivals.
Obviously it is possible for a festival to belong to different categories at the same time, and Phagwah is an example of that. In Guyana though, it is commonly known as religious. But ironically, it has origins in India that are not religious, and its public outreach in Guyana has taken it beyond Hinduism into national and popular culture.
There are two explanations for its origins in ancient India. Different sources (including the late Reepu Daman Persaud) point to a secular origin and practice. This makes it a calendar and traditional festival. It is called Phagwah because it originated in the month of Phagoon in the Hindu calendar. It is widely known as a Spring Festival with the joyous celebration of spring, rebirth and fertility, and indeed it is dated around spring time. These celebrations originated in agriculture. It had to do with spiritual influence over the environment to aid in successful crops and the celebration of the harvest. At Phagwah time revellers throw water, dyes, powder and abeer.
The water is symbolic of the fertile growth of crops while abeer symbolises the grain that was thrown around in the original festivities. Grain coloured with dyes came into use. Indeed the spring festival with its themes of rejuvenation, fertility, harvest and rebirth is in keeping with the joyous, youthful, festive abandon and the display of colours on Phagwah day.
The second explanation of origin is religious and derives from a myth. This myth also illustrates the way these festivals sometimes make use of mythology, literature and symbolism. The other name of the festival – Holi, might have come from this myth, although the sources also make reference to a Sanskrit word ‘Hora’ – an ancient name for the festival. Holi might be a reference to Holika, one of the protagonists in the story of origin. The story is well known, but there are different variants, and its significance to certain important elements in the festival might justify the repetition of a brief summary here.
The gods were very pleased with a holy and righteous king named Heranyakashyapu and he was granted a boon. He could not be killed by man or beast; neither in the day nor in the night; not on the ground or in the air; he could not be killed indoors or outdoors (another version also adds that he could not be killed by any weapon). This gave the king a great feeling of immunity (although it was really a false sense of security); he felt he could never be killed. Overwhelmed by his own power he began to feel like a god and ordered his entire kingdom to worship him as God. But he was very oppressive and tyrannical.
The one person who defied him was his own son Prince Prahalad, who refused to obey him. In spite of continued threats from his father he insisted that Heranyakashyapu was not God and he would worship only God. The king decided to make an example of the boy because he was undermining his authority in the kingdom. When faced with obeying his father or being put to death the boy refused to yield. The king’s sister Holika also had a great power – she could not be burnt by fire. So the king had a great pyre lit and Holika took Prahalad with her to sit in the middle of the pyre so he could be destroyed. But to reward him for his exemplary devotion to god there was a miracle. For her evil act Holika’s immunity was revoked; Prahalad emerged from the fire unscathed while his aunt disappeared in the flames.
The happy people took her ashes and threw them around joyously. As for her brother, one of the gods (his identity differs in different versions) eventually found a way to kill him without going against his boon. The god changed himself into half man, half lion; he approached Heranyakashyapu at twilight (or dusk); he carried him to a balcony, held him exactly in the doorway and killed him there without violating any of the principles of the boon.
The throwing of abeer, coloured dyes and powder is therefore symbolic of the ashes of the evil princess Holika. Phagwah is celebrated to acclaim the steadfast, self-sacrificing devotion and piety of Prince Prahalad. It proclaims the triumph of good over evil and spiritual purity. In many ways this story shows the use of literature in festivals like these with themes and messages which broadcast spiritual belief.
Similarly, the burning of Holika is dramatised symbolically in one of the holy rituals of Holi. In fact, this is responsible for many other practices. It was already pointed out that Holi or Phagwah is not one day, but a full festival, and many events called ‘Pre-Phagwah’ are actually included in it. Tomorrow is Phagwah, but it may be said that the festival officially started 40 days ago with the Planting of Holika. At that time a castor oil tree was planted by devotees. The tree that has grown is uprooted and placed in the middle of a large pyre built at a selected location and it will be lit tonight. This is the ceremony of the Burning of Holika in which a ritual is performed around the blazing fire. Tomorrow morning the ashes from this will be gathered by devotees and smeared on each other along with the water, colour, abeer and powder as part of the festive Phagwah celebration.
Also in the days leading up to the climax of the festival there are several performances of Chowtals – songs and music presented by Hindus. These take place in mandirs, kendras or in any public place, some of them in large public concerts. Music and dance are known to be parts of Hindu celebrations and religious festivals have actually contributed to the popularisation and perpetuation of Indian dance in Guyana. A part of the tradition has been that competitions are held among performing groups, but this has not appeared to have been a major event in recent observances in Guyana.
Many of the things necessary in the preparation for the primary events in the festival have become customs and ritual practices and these continue during the week or two before Phagwah day. Many of them have become secular even if they started out as contributors to the religious rituals. Some of them have also become part of the public outreach, such as the giving of sweetmeats to neighbours, friends, and just about everyone by Hindu families.
Differences brought about by geography and time affect Phagwah. The celebrations that belong to the agricultural roots and associations in India do not seem to have survived in Guyana. Elements of the spring festival – the gaiety and revels on the streets are there, but nothing of the harvest or crops or grain, except in the symbolic vestiges that are very much present. In addition, the events on Phagwah day on the streets are widespread among non-believers and non-Hindu sections of the population. The (secular) tradition long known in Guyana of throwing buckets of water on all and sundry (‘playing Phagwah’) on the streets has definitely waned, and celebrants/revellers are more likely to confine this to small groups of consenting Phagwah players.
Yet, playing Phagwah is a ‘sport’ that appeals to the popular culture and is the main factor in it being a popular festival. In Trinidad, as the afternoon moves on tomorrow, before sun-down, playing Phagwah transforms itself into street parties and revelry in open fields where the ‘players’ can be seen still covered in colourful dyes and powder drinking beer, rum, and all manner of alcohol. This development is contrary to the many public announcements of “no alcohol allowed” at many Phagwah events, since this goes against religious practices.
In Guyana the popular culture similarly takes over as there are street parties and revels on the night of the public holiday. While many devout Hindus disown these practices, they are signs of cultural change.
They also ironically, signal the success of several decades of a deliberate public outreach by those who hold the festival sacred. It has always been their desire to publicise messages that carry the religious principles and beliefs of Hinduism – such as those coming out of the story of Prahalad.