Holi Phagwah, sometimes spelled Holy Phagwa or refered to simply as Holi, is the Indian festival of spring. The tradition spread from India with the proliferation of indentured servants to other countries. It is celebrated in Mauritius, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago as well as in New York among the Caribbean community in Queens which holds a Miss Phagwah Beauty Pageant; it has become a public holiday.
The Hindi will rise early in the morning for this celebration. It begins after they've bathed and had a short religious spiritual. Children will scream with delight as they run about throwing abhir and gulal on each other, while the adults celebrate by spritzing one another with perfumes. As it would be disrespectful for the children to throw things at their elders, they will instead mark the adults foreheads with red powder so that they might celebrate together. Before noon everyone will bath again and dress in their best clothes, often starched and bright white. Then a feast of their best dishes will be had.
Every place has their variations to the festival, in Bengal, for instance, there is group singing and dancing as people parade around the village while in Dehli each person is given a mixture of milk, crushed almonds and bhang. The celebration will go on for hours in some townships, while lasting weeks in farmlands and estates in countries such as Guyana. In places that have music, percussion instruments are among the most common used specifically the dholak, kartaal, jhaal and manjeera. Whatever songs are sung are often dedicated to Shiva, Krishna and Rama. The groups of minstrels that perform at Holi Phagwah are called chowtal.
After the celebration the nice white clothes have been stained thoroughly so often they are discarded. The red from the abhir that has been tossed so freely during celebration is still around days later, dusting everything and tinting skin and buildings alike.
In the country of Suriname it is no longer just those of Indian decent that celebrate Holi Phagwah. The communities are so diverse that the celebration has become widespread, with everyone throwing perfume, powder, oil and more at their neighbors while wishing them "Sub Holy." The blessing of "Sub Holy" is a good luck wish resembling the "Peace be with you" that some Christians say to one another during certain services.
There are several speculations as to Holi Phagwah's origin, one of which can be found in the Hindu holy scriptures Vishnu Purana. In these scriptures there is a tale of the evil King Hiranya Kashipu1. The King was angry at his son, Prahalad, for worshiping Vishnu before him and decided to punish the boy. First he ordered him to embrace a red-hot pole, but Prahalad was unhurt by this. Next he asked him to step off a steep cliff, but again the boy was unhurt by this. Each time the boy did as he was told, chanting Vishnu's name throughout the trial. Angered, the King then ordered him to be trampled by an elephant, Prahalad survived this as well. King Kashipu then called upon his sister, Holika, to help him plot against his son. Holika had the ability to survive a fire unburnt, and this power would be used in their scheme. She called the boy to her and made him sit on her lap as they were set aflame, however something went wrong. Instead of Prahalad perishing, it was Holika who died in the inferno. Prahalad's survival was seen as a victory for good deeds over evil ones.
The Holi in Holi Phagwah is a reference to the perished Holika. In remembrance of this important lesson, the tradition of burning Holika takes place the day before Phagwah is celebrated.
In the beginning the festival was called Navaneshti Yang. It was observed by many in Northern India and was closely associated with village customs. Some believe Phagwah may have emerged from the region that encompassed parts of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. This area also gave birth to the Bhojpuri culture2. Here the humble farmers would give their first grains as offerings in thanks for their bounty, a custom that went on a millennia before Lord Rama's rule. Each region formed their own names for the celebration and it went through many changes before being called Holi Phagwah.
1As is common in translations the name of the characters is often a smigde different in each telling. In some of the sources the King's name is Hiranya Kasyapu and the son's name is Prahlad.
2The Bhojpuri people form the elite and main ruling classes in Fiji, Suriname, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad, and in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar the rulers tend to be Bhojpuri. As a people they are well known for their extreme pride and love for their native motherland, and are characterized by their spirituality, their love for humanity, their religious tolerance and a longing for a better life.
Sudeep Audio, http://www.sudeepaudio.com/folk/folkinst.htm
Bhojpuri Sansar, http://www.geocities.com/binay_rekha/bhojpuri.htm
Phagwa or Holi, http://www.nalis.gov.tt/Festivals/festivals_PhagwaORHoli.htm
Cultural Links, http://www.landofsixpeoples.com/carnphab.htm