Phagwa is one of many religious celebrations being observed this weekend.
The tradition which is celebrated by Hindus the world over adopts a slightly different meaning in T&T. According to Dr Kumar Mahabir, holi is a spring festival in India while in T&T it celebrates the harvest. He added that Phagwa in Trinidad is “signalled by the bloom of large poui trees visible for miles because of their distinct bright yellow and mild pink colour. The bloom of poui trees also foresees the heart of the dry season when watermelons are harvested and sugarcane was cut not too many years ago.”
Phagwa and Holi in T&T and India are both identified by colour, however. Colour is sprayed onto participants (who wear white clothing) using abeer and gulal—coloured liquid and powder. On the eve of Phagwa celebrations a large fire is lit to represent the “destruction of the demoness Holika,” said Mahabir.
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Special music is also played during Phagwa such as chowtals and pichakaree. According to Mahabir, pichakaree songs are only played at the Hindu Prachar Kendra in Longdenville, Chaguanas. The Hindu Prachar Kendra has hosted a Pichakaree competition every Phagwa for the past 22 years. This year’s final round takes place on March 31 from 2.30 pm. In recent times some Bollywood songs have entered into the Phagwa arena, the most popular being Rang Barse, sung by Indian acting and singing legend Amitabh Bachan, prominent in a Phagwa scene in the movie Laawaris.
Mahabir shared that pichakaree was a “musical genre mixed with Hindi and English ballads invented mainly as a response to the derogatory calypsoes about Hindus, and Indian in general, sung during Carnival.”
He added: “The name pichakareee is derived from the syringe-like device used to dispense abeer during the celebration. There are competitions for chowtal and pichakaree performances at separate venues. Chowtal contestants compete in choirs (“bands”) while pichakaree performers compete as individuals. Pichakaree contestants compete in designated classifications such as the festive category, or the social and political category.”
The Pichakaree competition is followed by Ranga Barase—a community dance in a shower of colours. While Phagwa is a Hindu festival, Mahabir added that celebrations have become more multicultural in past years. This multiculturalism can be attributed to the number of non-Hindus and non-Indians who now attend Hindu schools said Mahabir. The change is also because Phagwa events are free and open to the public. “Nobody is specially invited. You can just attend,” added Mahabir.
(With reporting by Shastri Boodan)
History of Phagwa in T&T
The Hindu festival of Phagwa began in T&T with the arrival of the first indentured Indians in 1845. The origins of the festival lie in the Hindu scripture the Vishnu Purana, which tells the tale of the evil king Hiranyakashipu who wanted to destroy his son Prahlad because Prahlad did not want to worship Hiranyakashipu.
The king then plotted with his sister Holika to destroy Prahlad by fire. Holika had a magic scarf that would protect her from the flames. When she lured Prahlad into the flames, however, the young man managed to come out alive and covered with the scarf, and Holika was burnt instead. Prahlad then took the ashes and started playing with them. This event signified the rise of good over evil. As the customs dictate celebrations cannot take place before the burning of the effigy.
The indentured brought with them in their jahaji bundles several percussion instruments that include the dholak drums, the kartaal, jhal and majeera. These instruments are still used today to accompany the chowtaal bands across the island and none of them run on electrical power. When combined with the voices of the singers, however, the music is loud enough to fill a savannah. The songs are religious in nature and dedicated to Hindu deities as Lord Shiva, Lord Krishna and Lord Rama. Chowtaal songs are fast paced and energetic.