PHAGWAH is the most ancient festival celebrated in Guyana, since its origin could be dated some 5000 years ago. Like all such ancient festivals, many layers of traditions have become embedded in it with the passing of the centuries and Phagwah is particularly rich in such traditions. It has a purely celebratory strand as a Spring Festival and a New Year Festival. As a Spring Festival, people would have reaped their crops and are preparing to sow again, thus ensuring their economic well-being for the next year.
As a new year celebration, it marks a new beginning with new life and energy. The Iranian New Year, Now Roz, comes about the same time as Phagwah, both of which are lunar holy days. Then there is a moral and religious strand teaching that evil, no matter how powerful, will eventually be eliminated. And lastly, there is a political strand that condemns governments that oppress their people as shown in the case of Hiranya Kasipu and Rawan. All these traditions and strands become so fused in the modern celebrations of Phagwah as to be indistinguishable.
We will touch on the story of King Hiranya Kasipu. He practised extreme religious penance or Tapasya which won the recognition of God and he was offered three boons. He chose never to be killed by man or animal; never to be killed by night or day, and never to be killed anywhere on earth. He had become immortal and developed into a megalomaniac where he felt he was God. He ordered all his subjects to worship him as God on the pain of death if they did not.
His young son Prahalad refused to worship him as God and continued to worship Lord Vishnu. The King was furious and decided to have him killed. He, therefore, built a huge pyre and had his sister Holika whom fire could not harm sit on the pyre with Prahalad on her lap and then lit the flames. When the conflagration subsided, Holika was burnt to ashes but Prahalad was unharmed. Thus the festival is also called ‘Holi.’ The King was furious and visited the main temple to ascertain whether the congregation was worshipping him and as he strutted about shouting, if there was any other God than he, let that God come and engage him.
In so doing, he slashed one of the columns of the temple with his sword and as he did so, Lord Vishnu in the Outar or form of a man-lion, later known as Narsimha or Narsingh, emerged and immediately attacked Hiranya Kasipu. In the struggle, they fell on the steps of the temple and Narsingh managed to grab hold of the king’s throat, raised him off the ground and throttled him. Hiranya Kasipu was thus killed neither by man nor animal, was suspended off the earth and since it was dusk, it was neither night nor day.
The people of the kingdom broke into spontaneous celebration, merging their Spring festival and New Year celebrations, joyously sprinkling each other with coloured water and feasted together, ushering in the modern Phagwah.
The other strong Phagwah tradition in Guyana is the lighting of diyas or small earthenware lamps in every home and along every path. The king of Ayodhya had three sons from three queens. The eldest, Lord Rama, was heir to the throne but the second queen wished her son Bharat to succeed to the throne and so arranged for Lord Rama to be sent into exile for 14 years to the forests. It was while he was in the forests that his wife Sita was kidnapped by Rawan which led to a war with Lanka, Rawan’s kingdom. Bharat was a man of moral purity and governed in Ram’s name and when he returned, the people celebrated by illuminating every town and village. Thus the tradition of diyas.
Phagwah had long been an inclusive festival in India where every caste, class, colour and even religion participated and when it arrived in Guyana, it immediately became an integrative force encompassing all races and religions. Though it became a public holiday after independence, in colonial times, many businesses closed in honour of the day, including the sugar industry, the largest employer in the country. The story of its being designated a public holiday would be told in another offering of this column, since a few of our surviving members were deeply involved in the creation of the new holiday structure which included the Hindu and Muslim holy days.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its regulations have greatly constrained the celebrations, but the spirit of Phagwah still pervades and homes will still be illuminated, sweetmeats would be exchanged and meals provided for those in need. We wish our readers and the public in general a happy Phagwah and a new year when all your wishes would be satisfied.