This past Sunday, March 11th, was Phagwa, the Hindu celebration of their New Year and the coming of Spring. This was not something of which I had any knowledge, however, until my Cultural Studies professor told us about it last week. The fact that there were Hindus in Barbados had never even occurred to me, and thus my curiosity was piqued. I knew nothing of Hinduism, except that it had its origins in ancient India/Asia, and wanted to see how they expressed their thankfulness and positivity toward a new year.
As it turns out, they do so by dousing each other in colored powder and splashing each other with paint for the greater part of three hours! Would not have been my first guess as to the method of celebration, but it was a lot more fun than any of the students expected. We were told to wear old clothes, and somehow everyone got the idea in their head that it would be best to wear all white; when 15 white kids wearing all white clothes piled out of the van upon arriving at Phagwa I had to laugh- it looked like we were ready for Halloween.
No sooner had we stepped out of the shuttles than people began patting us on the face with baby powder and welcoming us to the celebration. Now we looked really, really white. The festival was held in the parking lot behind the Hindu temple, with a large tent at the back of the lot providing shade for those who wished to sit down or simply had enough of getting paint thrown at their face. On another side of the lot one could find tables upon tables of traditional Indo-Caribbean food and drink. Wanting to eat my food without fear of paint contamination, that’s where I went first. My meal consisted of curried rice and potatoes, spinach, yams, and an unknown spicy dressing. Most people know to only take small portions of unknown foods, but I decided it was a good idea to take three heaping spoonfuls of the spicy dressing and slather it all over my rice. Besides all of the fascinating religious and cultural things I learned during Phagwa, I think one of the most important lessons learned was that American “spicy” food and Indian “spicy” food are not on the same level…not even close.
Then things got colorful. More people began arriving with liter bottles filled with water-based paint and bags of powder. As musicians played what I assumed to be Hindu music on stage, everyone began running around and dousing each other with as much paint as possible. I didn’t have any paint, unfortunately, but I bought a few bags of colored powder and went around to friends and strangers alike and attacked them with a barrage of color, albeit gently. The gesture was returned tenfold as I was covered head to toe in red, blue, orange, pink, and green paint and powder within minutes. When I finally looked at myself in a car window, I very closely resembled an Oompah Loompah (from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).
Later in the celebration they brought on a pretty eccentric performer who proceeded to take the stage and make jungle animal noises. Supposedly he was trying to provide some context for his next displays of skill, as he demonstrated how to break open coconuts as they had done in the jungles of Guyana before the advancement of modern technology. For his next act he proceeded to place a chicken on his head and play some rhythmic drum lines as the crowd cheered him on and danced. I, personally, was equally impressed with the chicken’s ability to balance on the man’s head the whole time. Before we left Phagwa, the temple pundit allowed our group to check out the Hindu temple, which featured detailed drawings and almost-life-sized statues of what I can only imagine were their sacred dieties. A very cool experience, considering he even let us inside looking like a rainbow had exploded all over us.