Phagwah, or Holi, is the Indo-Caribbean Hindu celebration of the new year. Every spring, the Sunday after the first full moon of the Hindu calendar, Phagwah literally paints the streets as kids and families "color" one another with dye (abrac) and powder and chase away the winter grays. The spirit — and high-jinks — are like that of Carnival. (Note: no dye or powder is allowed on street or sidewalk, just in the park.)
The Phagwah Parade in Richmond Hill, Queens, is the biggest celebration in North America.
What Is Phagwah?
Phagwah is the celebration of Holi, a Hindu festival. Indo-Caribbeans immigrants from Guyana and Trinidad brought the celebration to Queens, starting the parade in 1990.
It's a typical community parade. Floats carry beauty pageant winners, businessmen, and religious and political leaders down Liberty Avenue and over to Smokey Oval Park, where there's a concert.
The difference is the bright red, purple, orange, and green dyes and powders that fill the air and coat the white clothes of revelers.
Take public transportation and save yourself a headache. Parking is very limited in the neighborhood.
- Car: Van Wyck to Liberty Avenue exit or the Atlantic Avenue exit (better). Head west toward Richmond Hill.
- Parking: Try parking on a side street between Liberty and Atlantic, close to Smokey Oval Park, or else on Atlantic. Parking on Liberty is not an option. By noon finding a spot will be very difficult, if not headache inducing.
- Subway: A to Ozone Park-Lefferts Boulevard at Liberty Avenue. Walk east along Liberty.
- Bus: Q8, Q10, Q41, and Q112
Safety and Color
After 9/11 some feared that the Phagwah celebrations, especially with the powder, could become a target for terror. Thankfully, the parade has never been disturbed. It has always been a safe, fun day.
The only problem is for those who want to keep their clothes clean. Even if you stand back on the sidewalk, it's common to get dye splattered on your clothes. And if you step into the street, you are fair game for the kids with super-soakers full of purple dye.
Official Parade Rules
The parade rules according to the Phagwah Parade Committee:
- There shall be no alcohol drinking;
- There shall be no super-soaker;
- Powder and dye are restricted to the Smokey Oval Park and formation point;
- Only religious songs (Phagwah Songs and Chowtals) are to be sung;
- Participants should either be in front or at the back of the Floats and not at the side;
- No political banner is allowed on the Parade route or at the Smokey Oval Park;
- No one must throw any abrac or powder on Police Officers.
Phagwah (also spelled Phagwa) is the Indo-Caribbean celebration of the Hindu spring holiday known as Holi in India. It is the traditional Hindu festival of spring and the new year of its lunar calendar.
For thousands of years in India, Hindus have celebrated Holi as the victory of good over evil, and as the renewal of the agricultural seasons. (Its fall twin in the Hindu year is Diwali, the Festival of Lights.) Local celebrations vary, and always color plays a big role.
In the Caribbean
Indians who went to the Caribbean as indentured laborers in the 19th century and early 20th century brought the holiday to Guyana, Surinam, and Trinidad.
The holiday flourished and gained the name Phagwah. In Guyana and Suriname, Phagwah became an important national holiday, and everyone had the day off from work.
Since the 1970s many Guyanese have emigrated to the United States, especially to Richmond Hill and Jamaica in Queens, and brought the Phagwah tradition to their new home.
The Rajkumari Cultural Center (718-805-8068) is a Richmond Hill community organization dedicated to teaching and preserving Indo-Caribbean art and culture in NYC.