Where Everybody Knows Your Name! Holi in America

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The crowd in front of the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Utah during the Festival of Colors, Holi. Photo Dreamstime

Holi, the Hindu festival celebrating the arrival of Spring has become well-known over the past few years in America. Colors of Spring sprinkled on bodies is what most people from California to New York know it as. Holi festivals have been annually organized at most temples. University students have also been organizing campus celebrations.

Considered one of the biggest mainstream events, The Festival of Colors at Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork, Utah, has been drawing huge crowds of people from far and near, some traveling especially for it across states. The festival has also spread to Las Vegas, Nevada. What attracts all the people to it is the pure joy of being sprinkled in color, a feeling of brotherhood, a feeling of contentment that everything is well with the world. Along with color playing, musical concerts and dance performances, and yoga, the festival also features The Color Run across more than two dozen U.S. cities. The festival is held every year unaffected by the weather.

Holi or more precisely ‘Dhuleti’ the playing with colors festival, has also made its way into Seattle clubs. A regularly held Holi festival is one organized by the Phinney Neighborhood Association of Seattle, where huge groups of people enjoy not just the colors but Indian food from the food trucks and hot brewed Indian Chai.

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In Houston, with a large Indian American population, the Holi Mela has become a mainstream event drawing large crowds. In the typical fashion of a fair, it features shows, rides, and food, and, of course, colors.

Many Holi celebrations are held in Chicago by the Indian Associations throughout the area with traditional color play and music and food. A noticeable mainstream public celebration is a free event, the Navy Pier’s Holi, organized by ComEd.

Holi at the Braj Mandir in Holbrook, New England, is a big event featuring traditional ‘pooja’, religious singing, dance and ‘prasad’.

Holi celebrations at the ISCKON temples are famous. In Washington, DC, more specifically at the ISCKON temple in Potomac, Maryland, the festival has become a popular annual event of singing and dancing and playing with color and delicious food. Along with the usual celebrations, free transportation to the festival site is a special feature that draws large crowds.

New Brunswick, New Jersey is home to plenty of annual Holi festivals, from Holi parties in Jersey City to events at the temples to public events with the Holi campfire. The yearly free Holi event at New Brunswick involves music, dance, wager, henna and colors.

While many Holi festivals are held all over New York State and City, a special festival, the Brooklyn Bushwick festival has been one of the most successful events of the multicultural city. Started by a group of young peple, chief among which is Jack Langerman, the Brooklyn festival is, according to reports, inspired by videos of Holi on YouTube. Langerman is reported to have said that he felt the Hindus had found, almost a century ago, a way to celebrate Spring with pure joy without any other attachments to it.

Playing with color powders and drenching each other with colored water is a beautiful mainstream commercial on television, of children’s toy water guns.

Holi, The Caribbean Way! New York City’s Colorful Phagwah Parade

“Hindus in Guyana were taught that Holi signifies the triumph of good over evil. As such, Phagwah or Holi is celebrated by not just Hindus, but also by other ethnicities, bringing about a unity among the people,” said Jake Persaud who has been working at Medgar Evers College in New York, to News India Times. Temples, in Guyana, were the seats of culture and tradition, educating the congregation about the language, the scriptures, the religion and the spiritual significance of all the festivals and occasions. The actual day of the Phagwah celebration was declared a National Holiday after Guyana’s independence in 1966.

Holi Phagwah celebrations in New York. Photo Videograb

“All Guyanese people are aware of the religious significance of the festival of Holi and the story of Hirankashipu and his son, Bhakta Prahlad,” Sam Kawall Somwaru told News India Times. The festival, also celebrated by the people of Trinidad, Suriname, and the people of Indian origin in Jamaica, is celebrated in Guyana by all people of different races and economic status, in the spirit of peace and friendship, said Somwaru, who has just retired from his job of thirty three years in New York City Department of Health.

Traditions of Phagwah Celebration in Guyana

In Guyana, Phagwah celebrations began forty days before the festival, Somwaru said. He said a  site was selected for the fire in less populated rural area before forty days, and a Castor tree was planted there. For forty days, a group of priests and devotees would go to temples and houses, singing Chowtal, a folksong of Phagwah, on their way. The inhabitants of the houses would prepare sweets and serve them to the members of the singing party. Firewood was also collected during these days.

“Then on the day of Holi, priests and devotees would come together to the area where the pyre had been built. A religious ceremony along with prayers and circling of the fire is carried out, with farmers and devotees praying for better crops for the year,” Somwaru said. Next morning, the priest and devotees would collect the ashes of the Holi fire, mix them in water and apply them to people’s foreheads, singing Chowtal, he said. In the afternoon, men and women would change to white clothes and begin to play color with ‘abeer’ powder with friends and neighbors, Somwaru remembered, adding much singing accompanied by drums also took place.

“This tradition mainly remains in the rural areas of Guyana. In the big cities like Georgetown, most of this is done in the churches,” he said. The first two days are for fasting and vegetarian meals, with people resuming non vegetarian meals, and continuing to celebrate with music and drinks, he added.

Persaud also has similar memories of Phagwah celebrations. “In Guyana, Holi or Phagwah, was celebrated much in the Indian traditional manner,” he said. He said in Guyana, people had more time to prepare for the festival. Celebrations started well before the festival, with singing of Chowtals and folk songs. He said friends and relatives in Guyana celebrate Phagwah even today in a more traditional way. “But now, instead of the many-days celebrations, they celebrate Holi for two to three days,” he said. He said people still prepare the traditional vegetarian dishes – Bara, Dhal Puri, Channa, Kheer, Curried Potatoes, rice and phoulourie.

Saleah Kopera’s memories of Phagwah in Guyana are of her childhood days. Senior Sales Associate at Cartier’s Fifth Avenue, New York, Kopera said she left Guyana when she was very young. “I remember, Phagwah was a full day celebration of fun and food,” she said. With the solemnity of the campfire of Holi and prayers and worship getting over the first day, the second day was meant for joy. “Early in the morning, friends and relatives come knocking on the door, and you have to open the door, and be colored by them. There is no hiding,” Kopera said. She said she remembers how the whole day went in that play and cooking and eating a vegetarian meal.

Phagwah Celebrations in the U.S.

In the U.S., most cultural celebrations have become individual celebrations. According to Somwaru, Phagwah is celebrated publicly only through the parade. But in Guyana, it is still celebrated in an authentic manner, he said. He said the Guyanese people in the U.S. individually celebrate Phagwah by going to the temple where a lot of the religious ceremonies associated with the festival take place.

Persaud had similar thoughts. He said, “The Hindu Guyanese community is closely associated with the ‘Mandirs’, and Phagwah in the U.S., is celebrated mainly at the Mandirs.” In New York, The Hindu Federation of Mandirs organizes Phagwah eve, Persaud informed. It is usually celebrated with singing of Chowtal, applying of colored liquids, and powders on each other’s face and clothes, and sharing of vegetarian meals, generally in a friendly atmosphere. He said a few musical concerts are also organized by independent leaders to commemorate the festival.

Considered as one of the major events on the east coast, the Phagwah Parade in New York City is a well-known public event with viewers coming to attend it from far including New Jersey and Connecticut. Somwaru said his family has attended the Parade many times. Started in 1988, the Phagwah Parade is usually held in March, indicating the end of winter and the beginning of Spring, he said. The parade is a West Indian parade with participants from Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname and Jamaica.

Describing the Parade, Somwaru said that a number of business people along Liberty Avenue  participate and, due to the large number of people attending, special Police permission is sought. A center stage is created from where religious speakers and participating political leaders including Congressmen and Assembly men address the crowd. Many times one of the political leaders is also the Grand Marshal of the Parade, Somwaru said. The Parade usually has twenty to thirty floats of businesses or religious organizations, including Police Bands from the Precinct and many mainstream businesses.

Safety of the gatherings ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 people is maintained well. “The Police do a very good job when people have congregated at the starting point on the 133rd street on Liberty Avenue with banners and are all dressed up and religious music is playing. Viewers from the tri-state area gather on both sides of the parade route,” Somwaru said. He said representatives from the local temples and businesses distribute free snacks and drinks to all. “It is our temples and local business owners from India who do this part,” he said. After the speeches, all the people gathered play with color powder or ‘abeer’ before going home, Somwaru said.

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