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Phagwa or Holi

Phagwa or Holi is celebrated in the later part of the month of Phalgun and the early part of Chastain the Hindu calendar. This corresponds to the English months of March-April.This festival was first celebrated in Trinidad around the year 1845. The Hindus who came from Bihar in India as indentured labourers on the sugarcane fields, brought this festival and has celebrated it for the last 156 years.Actually, the only difference between Phagwa and Holi is the name.

This festival of colours is celebrated with songs, music and dances. A variety of watercolours are mixed and sprayed on all those who participate in the celebrations and corresponding coloured powder is smeared on their bodies as well.In the early days the festival was observed very modestly because of the many constraints that the Hindus had to deal with.

However, today it is celebrated at a national level, in a grand style throughout Trinidad. A special type of folk song called Chowtal is sung during the course of the festival and the music is usually played with only two instruments. The dholak (a hand drum) and the majeera (cymbals or percussion instrument) are the only two instruments used.
The music is fast paced and provokes dancing and the Chowtal songs are sung rather loudly and are high pitched. Together, they produce a rich cultural blend of talents and skills. It is not uncommon that during the festivities enemies embrace each other and forget their differences, if but for a short while.

History of Holi

The word Holi was derived from the Sanskrit word Holka meaning parched grains.The celebration itself was called Holka Utsow and it was started in the Vedic era (proto-historic times). These parched grains were used to perform Hawan (a fire ritual).The Vibhuti (sacred ashes) obtained from this ritual was smeared on the forehead of those who participated in the ritual to keep away evil This Vibhuti was called Bhumi Hari and is now called Bhum Hari. Then came the story of Prahalad which demonstrated how a sinner got burnt in the heat of her own sins.Prahalad was the son of an evil King called Hiranyakashipu. This king tried desperately to destroy this little boy and finally resorted to an evil sister of his. Her name was Holika.

Holika had powers which allowed her to be immune from destruction by fire. The evil king ordered Holika to take Prahalad into a huge fire so that he can be killed.Prahalad's faith in God was such that Holika's powers were reduced to naught and as such, she was burnt to death whilst Prahalad came out unhurt. It is because of this event, that Holika(a bonfire) is burnt yearly to usher in Holi. The burning of the effigy of Holika is called Holika Dahan.

In the days of Emperor Raghu, there was a Rakshasi (demoness) called Dhunda. She used to hide herself and when she saw children alone and unattended, she used to kill them. Acting on the advice of Guru Vashishta, Emperor Raghu made and distributed wooden swords amongst all the children of the kingdom.The children were instructed to make lots of noise and to shout very loudly. This Dhunda could not stand the loud noises and she eventually left and ran away.This happened on the same day that Holika was burnt.

It is also said that Lord Shiva (the Lord of auspiciousness) destroyed Kaam Dev (the Lord of love)on the day Holika was burnt and is called Madan Utsow in southern India. Holi is also called Vasant Utsow (the festival of spring) and the day after the burning of Holika people put ash (Vibhuti) on their forehead and they would mix Chandan (sandalpaste) with the young leaves and flowers of the Mango tree, and they would eat it to promote good health.

A point to note is that contrary to some belief, Phagwa or Holi is NOT a carnival but is a religious festival which promotes good health. It is interesting to know that the Catholics also has an ash ceremony. It is observed on Ash Wednesday, which is around the same time of the year Holi is celebrated (give or take a few weeks).