A joyous celebration of the new year and the arrival of spring, the Hindu Holi festival – known in the Caribbean as Phagwah (pronounced “pag-wah”) – is held around the first full moon in March to mark the end of the Hindu calendar’s twelfth month (Phagun). Upbeat and lighthearted – to the horror of more traditional Hindus, who consider this attitude adharamic (anti-religious) – Phagwah celebrations are massive outdoor parties that represent a symbolic triumph of light over darkness and happiness over suffering. In Indian religious mythology, the festival commemorates the death of Holika, the sister of evil king Hiranyakashyapu, who repeatedly tried to murder his son Prahalad because of the latter’s insistence on worshipping Vishnu as the only God. Immune to flames, Holika carried Prahalad into a fire, but the gods ensured that she burned to death; her brother was later slain by Vishnu. Holika’s conflagration is re-enacted the night before the main festivities, when sins amassed in the previous year are ceremonially consumed by the flames of large bonfires.
The main festivities revolve around traditions such as the singing of devotional folk songs called chowtals, sung in a mix of English and Hindi and composed specifically for Phagwah to tell the story of the festival, normally accompanied by goatskin dholak drums and brass cymbals called ghanj. Local businesses sponsor chowtal competitions in the weeks preceding Phagwah, and the winners perform on the day itself. The principal focus of the festival, though, are intense dyes of various colours including the fuchsia-pink abir, which is strewn about as powder or mixed with water and squirted from a plastic bottle renamed a pichakaaree; participants wear white to make the most of the ensuing glorious mess. As the festivities wear on, classical Indian dancers display their movements and chutney soca fuels the more risqué dancing. Games add to the fun; adults participate in makhan chor, where teams form a human pyramid in order to grab a suspended flag; and children compete in roti-eating contests in which skins are strung through the middle and tied in a line to be eaten with no hands allowed.