Guyanese in New York ready for Phagwah festivities
Stabroek News
March 29, 2002

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Dear Editor,

Guyanese living in the New York metropolitan region are engaged in final preparations for the observance of the colorful Hindu festival of Holi, more commonly known as Phagwah, which falls on March 28 but which will be officially observed by the large Guyanese community in New York over the weekend.

Four Phagwah parades have been planned for the weekend and West Indian stores in the city have been doing brisk business on phagwah related paraphernalia such as abeer and talc powder. A number of cultural variety shows marking the occasion were already held over the last two weekends. With Phagwah day approaching, one can feel the excitement on Liberty Avenue, the hub of commercial activities for Guyanese residing in Queens. Everyone is looking forward to an exciting parade.

The large influx of Guyanese, beginning in the late 1970s and continuing up until this day, has made it possible for Phagwah to be celebrated in New York in its splendor, glamour, and rich exuberance just like in Guyana. In fact, the festival evokes vivid memories of celebrations in Guyana with many Guyanese reminiscing about the excitement of the festival in their former homeland. Many temples and cultural organizations "planted Holi" some forty nights ago and are looking forward for its burning on the coming full moon night as well as the splashing of water mixed with ashes and other dirty water on each other. The organizers of the festivities in New York are attempting to imitate the way the festival is celebrated in Guyana but there can be no duplication because of weather and other factors; it is expected to be very cold and rainy during Phagwah observance.

Temples symbolically planted a small Holika (which represents evil) in the compound of their temples; this was done amidst chanting of prayers and ritual offerings. But unlike in Guyana, members of temples and organizations have not been engaging in nightly chowtal and taan singing at each others homes. Instead, members have been engaging in the traditional chowtal folk singing during the last several Sunday services at the temples. Temples reverberated with singing renditions and the ringing sound of jhaal (cymbal) as well as with the rhythmic tempo of dholak with dantaal and tarpiti drums; worshippers engaged in hand clapping and some even danced to the fast tempo.

As in Guyana, traditional delicacies such as bara, gulgula, phulourie, bigany, mango or tamarind chutney, potato ball, prasad, boiled channa, ghoja, mahambhoog, kheer or sweet rice, among others and beverage are served at the temples; no alcohol is available but the men do not hide their indulgence in the streets just as in Guyana.

The celebrations at the individual temples usually culminate in the magnificent annual parades which have now become a rite of passage; parades are scheduled for Richmond Hill and Jersey City on Saturday and Jersey City and Queens Village and the Bronx on Sunday. The parades are usually picturesque; participants clad in white apparel are bathed in red, and their hair and faces are coated with powder. The parades usually attract thousands of non-Guyanese as curious onlookers; some 100,000 participants of various religious affiliations and nationalities are expected to participate in the revelry.

For the last eleven years, the parades took on a carnival-like atmosphere with floats. The end of the parades normally culminate with a public concert at a park. A number of glittering cultural variety shows and pageants featuring modeling of latest Bollywood clothing designs and other festivities are planned for the upcoming weekend; many prominent Guyanese artistes are also expected to perform. And a play (Bhakt Prahalad) depicting the destruction of an evil king by his Godly son will be staged.

In spite of all the fun, Phagwah is not as much fun in New York as it is in Guyana; indeed, several Guyanese have flown to Guyana to celebrate the festival.

Several restrictions have been placed on the observing of Phagwah this year. Government officials are prohibiting the use of supersoaker guns and powdery materials because of the recent anthrax scare. Unlike in Guyana, Phagwah is not a holiday and is not accorded any recognition by the city of New York or the local counties where it is observed. Organizers of the parades have been struggling to obtain recognition but without much success. Hindus are yet to obtain privileges such as the suspension of parking privileges that have been accorded to Muslims, Christians and Jews. But students are exempted from classes although school is currently closed for the Easter break. And the Mayor of the city, Mike Bloomberg, and the city's legislature will observe the occasion at City Hall. The public has been invited.

Guyanese of all religious denominations applaud the public celebration of Phagwah in New York. They note that it helps to enhance a sense of pride and admiration for "our rich Guyanese cultural heritage". It also helps to foster unity among Guyanese regardless of religion or race because Indians, Africans, Hindus, Muslims and Christians take part in the celebration. In fact, year after year, Haji Zakir, a prominent Muslim mulvi, leads the parade. Phagwah is a truly national Guyanese festival because it brings people of diverse background, including Africans, together.

Phagwah is also a celebration in which people display affectionate love and warm feelings for each other. And it promotes a common feeling of togetherness, and rekindles the flame of love and unity among friends and loved ones.

Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram