Phagwah Parade to be held at Richmond Hill on Saturday

Photo: Youtube

By Rob MacKay

Get ready for colorful costumes, colorful floats, colorful personalities, and colorful talcum powder.

The all-afternoon (and often all-night) Phagwah Parade will fill the streets of Richmond Hill (at Queens, New York) with rainbows of joy on Saturday, March 26. If the weather is good, at least 100,000 revelers will celebrate this 28th annual Indo-Caribbean spring ritual by singing, dancing, riding floats, and throwing red-dyed powder, perfume, and water at each other in a cheerful, good-natured manner.

The formation will begin at around 10 am in the vicinity of Liberty Avenue and 133rd Street with at least 20 floats full of sari-clad women and large speakers blaring tropical music. Many more people will line the streets to watch the floats pass by. In past years there have been delays, but the schedule calls for a noon start with participants proceeding westward down Liberty Avenue, heading to 125th Street, where they will take a right turn and head north to Smokey Oval Park (aka Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto Park) at 92nd Avenue.

At the public space, live music, chanting, and traditional cultural performances will take place until it gets dark, maybe even a bit later. Foodies can expect plenty of curry, roti, and maybe even some sorrel (a cold drink made mostly from red hibiscus flowers). If you’re looking for a break from the action, may we suggest a Guyanese Chinese dinner at the nearby Nest Restaurant.

Phagwah (pronounced Pah-gwah) is also known as “Holi,” “The Festival of Colors,” and “The Festival of Shared Love.” It occurs every spring, after the first full moon on the Hindu calendar, as a de facto new year’s party. It’s also a commemoration of the triumph of good over evil.

Its origins are in northern India and Nepal, where it is also popular among the non-Hindu populations. The word “Holi” probably derives from “Holika,” who is the evil sister of a demon king. According to Hindu folklore, Holika tricked her nephew, Prahlada, into sitting on a burning pyre with her while she was wearing a protective cloak. But as the flames grew, they created a wind that blew the cloak from Holika and onto Prahlada. The fire then killed Holika, while Prahlada survived. The next day, townspeople spread ashes from the pyre on their foreheads, a practice that probably evolved into today’s distribution of colored powder and liquids. (Some people say they use colored powder to chase away the winter grays.)

The celebration of Phagwah came to Richmond Hill via the Caribbean. Many Indians immigrated to Guyana and Trinidad in the 18th century as indentured servants after the British West Indies abolished slavery of Africans and their descendants in 1838. Most of these new immigrants worked on sugar cane plantations, the backbone of the Caribbean economy at the time.

About 30 years ago, a large number of Caribbean-born descendants of these Indians began settling in Richmond Hill and Ozone Park. Currently, Richmond Hill hosts the largest Phagwah Parade in North American. The first one took place in 1988 with about 40 attendees. It has steadily grown since then to become a major religious, commercial, and cultural event, attracting Hindus and tourists from around the world, including India.

However, there was a break in the action last year. Due to a contentious schism among organizers and a flurry of court mediation, the event was cancelled. Some attributed the problems to natural growing pains as members of the Hindu Parades & Festivals Committee sparred with The Federation of Hindu Mandirs Inc. and other community leaders over control. Others blamed egos, power, and politics. (Ethnic parades, such as the Dominican and Puerto Ricans ones in Manhattan, have experienced similar issues.) This is all in the past now, and it’s parade time.

Getting there:
To get to Liberty Avenue and 133 St., take the E train to Jamaica/Van Wyck and transfer to the Q24 bus, exit at Atlantic Avenue and the Van Wyck Expressway.

Rob MacKay is the director of public relations for the Queens Economic Development Corporation. Source: