You don’t have to know what Phagwah is to enjoy it.
“Some of these people on the streets don’t even know what we’re doing or why we’re doing it, but it just looks like fun so they join in,” said Mukesh Khemraj, whose face and clothes were smeared in damp red powder.
A crowd had started to gather around the Dollar General on State Street in Schenectady, where a line of trucks had pulled off to the side of the road Saturday morning to prepare for the musical and colorful procession to the Schenectady Hindu Temple in Mont Pleasant.
The parade hadn’t yet started, but the fun already had begun. Robed men and women stood in trucks and in trailers playing brass cymbals and kettle drums called tassa. They laughed as they sprayed water from toy squirt guns and tossed bright pink and purple and red powder called abeer all over each other. By day’s end, they would be back at the temple, covered in every color of the rainbow and enjoying each other’s company over music and food.
Phagwah — the ancient Hindu festival also known as Holi, the festival of colors and the festival of love — is celebrated each spring in pockets of the world with large Hindu and Indian populations, like India, Nepal, Guyana and Trinidad. For many, it marks the start of spring and a new year. People playfully toss colorful powders and water at each other to represent the colors that bloom each spring.
“Of course, it means something different to everybody,” said Ram Buchanna, a Hindu priest and Schenectady Neighborhood Watch member. “Our Hindu New Year really brings in the new year, not like the English New Year where it’s still winter and people hide in their houses. This brings light. It brings leaves. It brings flowers. Our new year symbolizes the spring, and the spring is a new year for us.”
But the festival also represents the triumph of good over evil, a lesson that dates back to ancient Hindu scripture detailing the futile efforts of Hiranyakashipu to kill his pious son Prahlada.
To 20-year-old Raj Ishmael, Phagwah is a reminder of equality. When everyone is covered in colors, you can’t tell who’s black, who’s white, who’s brown and so on, he said.
“It just doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s non-sectarian and in that spirit, everyone can participate. Everybody has a soul. Nobody’s less. Nobody’s more. Everybody comes from a position of equality — man, woman, child. People don’t think of that when they think of the caste system in India or social hierarchies elsewhere. But that’s the central theme of Hinduism. You can be an atheist and participate in Phagwah. No one really cares, because who can tell who’s who when everyone’s covered in the same thing?”
Ishmael was born in Guyana and moved to Schenectady on his seventh birthday. He serves as coordinator of studies at the Schenectady Hindu Temple, and has been marching in the Phagwah parade since 2009.
In previous years, the Phagwah parade has led to Central Park, where everyone eats, drinks, sings and dances.
The late winter this year forced the festival to the Hindu Temple parking lot, at the corner of Pleasant Street and Sixth Avenue. More than 300 people typically attend the festival.