Pundit Dr. Parasram Maharaj Speaks about the Phagwa Festival
On Saturday 28th February, 2010, the Mc Bean Ramleela and Cultural Group hosted the Phagwa celebrations at the Lower Mc Bean Recreational Ground in Couva. During the early morning preparations for the day’s event, Hindu Pundit Dr. Parasram Maharaj took time out from his busy schedule to share a bit of history and meaning of the Hindu festival of Phagwa from its origins in India to its colourful manifestations in Trinidad and Tobago. Known also as Holi or the Festival of Colours, Phagwa is celebrated throughout many communities across Trinidad, where the throwing of coloured powder and coloured water on each other, forms a central part of the festival. Phagwa is also celebrated in other countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Suriname, Guyana and Fiji.
TRINIVIEW.COM: This is the day of Phagwa, can you tell us a bit about it?
PUNDIT DR. PARASRAM MAHARAJ: Yes, it is indeed the day of Phagwa or Holi as many people would prefer to call it. It is a time of celebration and really it is the festival of colours. A very famous line that you would get a lot of the folks singing is “Splash the Colours” (translated from Hindi). So it is a festival of colour, and for me, it is a festival about life…celebrating life. There are of course with so many Hindu festivals, for that matter festivals in every culture, ancient stories that speaks [about] the origin of these celebrations.
In Hinduism, we have been told that Phagwa originated with the child devotee whose name was Prahalad, whose tyrannical father wanted to prevent him and the people of his kingdom from worshiping God. The child stood up to his father and eventually he had victory symbolizing essentially the victory of good over evil, righteous over unrighteous, which is the theme of many of the Hindu festivals that we observe. As you know Divali, for example, is the theme of light over darkness (translated from Hindi) with the lord taking away the poison that was destroying mankind essentially, the triumph of goodness and righteous over evil and so on. So the child having had victory over his father, standing up for what was right and what was righteous was also a celebration of freedom, freedom from tyranny and that kind of thing.
So you have this and then some people would like to link Phagwa to the Spring season because it is part of the Spring time in India, well at least in North India, and a lot of people link this and certain other ceremonies. There is a ceremony that takes place about a month or so earlier. In the Punjab and Delhi it’s called Lohri where people build bonfires, very much like what you all would have noticed last night, and they take freshly harvested grains and they throw the grains into the fire and they go around singing songs of joy and praise, so it is that too it is a celebration of Spring.
Spring of course has to do with life, newness, renewal and those kinds of things. So Phagwa has all these elements in it and it is something that our forefathers brought with them and over the years we have maintained it. Of course, it has transformed in its presentation in lots of ways actually. First of all, it has become centralized at big venues and that is because of the changing nature of the society. At one time when we were growing up in this village, this used to be a little dirt temple where we are sitting now. It is undergoing construction but it used to be a little dirt temple and there would be singing here for about a week or two every night. We sing the traditional songs of Phagwa which are called names like Chowtal… which are songs specific to the season.
So you have these centralized things and then like everything else it is becoming a little commercialized in places. But long ago, people would go from house to house in the villages and when they visited each other’s homes they sat down and they sang songs and they shared in meals. Some of the traditional fare of our forefathers who came from the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh, a state in India, and also from Bihar and what is now Jharkhand, another one of the states in India. So Kurma for example, and there was something called Khaja that many people don’t know about anymore, it is also a sweet and very similar to Kurma but you don’t find it very much in Trinidad anymore, and they would make something called Gulgula which was a sweet. It looks like a pholourie but it is like a sweet pholourie really and that too has by and large died. So there would be the singing going from house to house… the community getting together… those kinds of things.
So with the centralization and big festivals and the commercialization that goes into many of these things it is transformed in that sense, and of course, you have to look at social behavior that evolves from its society. Social behavior where people sat down and sang with the traditional instruments and drums and since it was within the communities and the villages and we knew the boundaries of social behavior. People behaved within limits although there might have been an occasional fellow who got drunk and people who crossed the boundary. But now with an almost carnival-like, bacchanal-like culture that is pervasive in the Caribbean; not only in Trinidad is it pervasive but it is alarming in Trinidad and Tobago really. I am all for people having healthy clean fun, having a good time, but when we cross the boundaries of decency and limits of civil behavior we start getting into trouble and I think that is one of things we have got to manage properly which brings me to this. I need to commend those people who insist that there have to be rules for every festival. I want to congratulate them for holding on to the thing and trying to manage it as best as they can. So that is about it. It is about life and celebration…freedom.
TRINIVIEW.COM: So the preparations for Phagwa, what are some of the things that lead up to that?
PUNDIT MAHARAJ: Well actually, in the preparations of Phagwa, what is happening really, if you can imagine the village communities long ago, people would get together in the times known as Basant Panchami – that is one of the calendar days in the Hindu calendar – and they do basic ceremonial worship and they begin the process where they begin singing these songs and it went on in those days. Essentially, it is not as though there was a rigorous spiritual cleansing or anything or it is different from any other festival in terms of the preparations necessary. But this is the remarkable thing, well not remarkable, but this is the feature of it: that is the community coming together, singing, celebrating life, sharing with one another…essentially that, and then the splashing of colours.
I will say this to you that the grandest Phagwa celebrations in the world takes place in the tract of land known as Raja Mangal in India. This area is where Lord Krishna was the personality of the godhead where he was actually born and where he grew up and where we have read for thousands of years about his adventures in his divine music and divine sports and those kinds of things. So it is an area where for at least four days people get together and they celebrate this festival of colour and it has many forms there too. It is not like we do it here and that is another thing about these festivals. They vary sometimes in form from place to place.
So like I was saying earlier in the temple, when I was a student in North India, there was a time to go through certain gates where students were not allowed to pass through because, you know then, we were just fellows living on a few pennies where as for example the rich and mighty and all that we would pass their gates on other days. On this day, I remember in a small town we lived, we got access to the house and you know it was just having fun. For us at that time, many people, the ninety percent of the people who were on the streets playing Phagwa, you couldn’t at all say that these were people who were religious in any way, they were just having a good time and that is how it is. So the form and content of the thing changes from place to place depending on the people themselves who play especially in Braj Mandal in the city of Mathura. In the villages Gogola, Brindaban, Govardhan and Barsana it is really a grand occasion with the merriment and the singing and the dancing and all kinds of little folk things thrown in there.
TRINIVIEW.COM: So in terms of today, you would have had a ceremony last night. Tell me about that.
PUNDIT MAHARAJ: Well actually, the ceremony… I was asking somebody last night to tell me about the ceremony because over the passage of time if we say Phagwa is a Spring festival and if it resembles the Tamil festival of Pongal or the Pajabi Festival of Lohri which is the setting up of the bonfires and grains, harvesting grains and throwing them in the fire, using the parched grains and all of that, one can see an immediate link as the Winter comes to an end, people are setting up bonfires and they are going around the fires and clapping and singing and thanking God for the harvest and other things.
The Puranas are old epics of the Hindus and Puranic stories. Of course, the tyrannical king that I spoke about, his sister – her name was Holika – and she had a boon that she couldn’t die by burning. So when the father was in his madness, virtually intoxicated with power and pride he actually told his sister to take my son in your lap and sit in the fire and through God’s grace, and so the story goes, she died in the fire and the child survived. The burning is linked to that event in an ancient time. So that is what it is really. So sometimes I ask myself, is this really to be considered a strict religious observance? And in my mind, no. I think it is an expression in a way or a remembering of the time when God was gracious to us and destroyed the evil and allowed good to survive.
TRINIVIEW.COM: So for someone who has never experienced this festival of Phagwa, what would you explain to them that they could expect here today?
PUNDIT MAHARAJ: There is nothing really that you explain to anyone but what to look forward to. I was saying last night, in culture there is only one way to experience culture: you have to be part of it; you have to go in. It’s like talking about swimming and actually swimming. Really, it is to observe. And I really don’t know what form and fashion this thing will take or how it may evolve because it is a function, one, of the visiting groups and secondly of the people who will come. And for that matter they may even decide to go to more prestigious venues. This is, I understand, the designated venue of the Maha Sabha so we just have to see how the day evolves. The other places in the country like the Kendra’s Phagwa celebrations and the Aranguez celebrations which have now become rather famous and elsewhere, so I suppose it will evolve as the day evolves. People should be having fun. They should be splashing one another with colour and stuff like that and grabbing a bite and I hope the ladies go a little moderate. But that is how it is going to evolve throughout the course of the day.
TRINIVIEW.COM: Do you have any final words to share with us?
PUNDIT MAHARAJ: Well, in fact, my message this morning to people which doesn’t have to do with today alone…I am designated this year, 2010, as a year of transformation and I was saying transformation has to do with development and growth that allows a man to be the best that he can be and to have that freedom to express himself. I would say to people, use all these things to express yourself and use them as milestones in a long developmental process that helps them in the end to become the person that he or she wants to be.
TRINIVIEW.COM: Thank you very much for sharing your experience and inspiration with us.
Mc Bean Ramleela Phagwa Celebrations 2010 in pictures: