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The arrival of Phagwa

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E.g., 2014-10-25
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Thursday, March 12, 2009

When Indian indentured labourers arrived in Trinidad aboard the SS Fatal Razack on May 30, 1845, they brought with them their religion, culture and traditions. The sugar estates and plantations provided no place of worship but our ancestors, who revered nature, used rivers, ponds and other such natural spots to create altars (bedi) upon which offerings were made and Sanskrit prayers chanted. In addition to Sanatan Dharma or Hinduism which they practised, they also brought with them their cultural traditions. Divali, Ramleela, Kartik, Shivraatri and Phagwa are now cultural celebrations that reach beyond the Hindu community.

When Indian indentured labourers arrived in Trinidad aboard the SS Fatal Razack on May 30, 1845, they brought with them their religion, culture and traditions. The sugar estates and plantations provided no place of worship but our ancestors, who revered nature, used rivers, ponds and other such natural spots to create altars (bedi) upon which offerings were made and Sanskrit prayers chanted. In addition to Sanatan Dharma or Hinduism which they practised, they also brought with them their cultural traditions. Divali, Ramleela, Kartik, Shivraatri and Phagwa are now cultural celebrations that reach beyond the Hindu community.

logoDr David Frawley, a well recognised American expert on Hinduism, in his book Hinduism the Eternal Tradition, writes: “Hindu culture is not a religious culture in the sense of an exclusive belief. It has a secular, universal and open-minded approach. Yet it is not a materialistic culture. It is based upon spiritual and yogic values and practices, a tradition of Sadhana or spiritual practice.” And he continues: “Therefore it does not have to clash with what is beneficial in western culture but can afford the spiritual dimension that it needs. Hindus should take what is useful from western culture but try to give it in return what they have to offer, which is a deeper approach to the spiritual life.”

Holi, referred to as Phagwa in the Bhojpuri language, a north Indian dialect, is also called Holaka. It is an annual festival celebrated on the day after the full moon in the Hindu month of Phalguna (early March). It celebrates the arrival of spring, commemorates various events in Hinduism, and is the time for disregarding social norms and indulging in general merrymaking. On the first day, the burning of the demoness Holika takes place in huge bonfires at night. People spend the second day, known as Dhulheti, throwing coloured powder and water at each other. In spite of being such a colourful festival, there are various aspects of Holi which make it significant for our lives. Foremost is the story of Prahlad and his father Hiranyakashyapu. The legend commemorated by the festival of Holi involves the evil king named Hiranyakashyapu.

He forbade his son Prahlad from worshipping Vishnu, one of the Hindu triad. He instructed that Prahlad should worship him instead. But Prahlad continued to offer prayers to the god. Getting angry with his son, Hiranyakashipu challenged Prahlad to sit on a pyre with his wicked aunt Holika, who was believed to be immune to fire. In an alternate version, Holika put herself and Prahlad on the fire on orders from her brother. Prahlad accepted the challenge and prayed to Lord Vishnu to keep him safe. When the fire started, everyone watched in amazement as Holika was burnt to death, while Prahlad survived without a scar to show for it. The burning of Holika is celebrated as Holi. According to some accounts, Holika begged Prahlad for forgiveness before her demise, and he decreed that she would be remembered every year at Holi.

An alternative account of the basis of the celebration is associated with a legend involving Lord Shiva, another member of the Hindu triad.
Shiva is known for his meditative nature and his many hours spent in solitude and deep meditation. Madana, the God of Love, decided to test his resolve and appeared to Shiva in the form of a beautiful nymph. But Shiva recognised Madana and became very angry. In a fit of rage he shot fire out of his third eye and reduced her to ashes. This is sometimes given as the basis of Holi’s bonfire. The festival of Holi is also associated with the enduring love between Lord Krishna (an incar- nation of Vishnu) and Radha. According to legend, the young Krishna complained to his mother Yashoda about why Radha was so fair and he so dark.

Yashoda advised him to apply colour on Radha’s face and see how her complexion would change. Because of this association with Krishna, Holi is extended over a longer period in Vrindavan and Mathura, two Indian cities with which Krishna is closely affiliated. The Phagwa celebrations in Trinidad are spread over four major events on the following dates and places: Chowtal Sammelan for schools was held on February 28 at the Maha Sabha Headquarters. Chowtal Sammelan for adults was held on Tuesday at the Parvati Girls Hindu College, Debe.

Also on Tuesday, Burning Holika (bonfire) took place at the Tunapuna Hindu School Grounds, the Parvati Girls Hindu College, and the Narayan Madhavan Mandir in Toco. On Saturday, a Children’s Phagwa will be held at the Tunapuna Hindu School Grounds. President George Maxwell Richards will formally open this event. On Sunday general Phagwa will be staged at various venues.

Satnarayan Maharaj is the
secretary general of the
Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha