Holi Phagwa 2017: Hilarity & Hues

Being in the Foreign Service has meant living in and traveling to lots of unique spots. I’ve had the immense privilege of enjoying many adventures. Among these, some stand out as particularly cool: visiting an ice festival near China’s border with Siberia, holding a baby tiger, and tromping around the Great Wall definitely make top tier

Last Monday saw a new addition to that list: celebrating Holi Phagwa, Suriname-style. It might not have been quite so adventurous or once-in-a-life-timey as scaling ancient Chinese fortifications, but it was just so fun. Because what adult doesn’t enjoy an excuse to fling colored powder on friends and strangers alike, sans repercussions?

A Hindu holiday, Holi Phagwa (AKA the Festival of Colors or Festival of Love) is meant to celebrate the triumph of good and arrival of spring… and consequently, the defeat of evil and end of winter. Suriname, as a former Dutch colony in South America, might seem an unlikely spot to celebrate a typically Indian and Nepalese holiday. But as I mentioned in a previous post, Suriname is an incredibly ethnically diverse country with Hindustanis being one of the major population groups.

For practicing Hindus, the day before Phagwa is as important as the festival itself. At Hindu temples around Suriname, pyres are built of leaves, wood, and other such materials. Around dusk, the pyres are set aflame, becoming the Holika Bonfire–a blaze that represents the destruction of an eponymous evil witch.

This triumphant immolation is celebrated with Phagwa’s jubilant, no-holds-barred color play. Powders of hues ranging from magenta to emerald, saffron to vermilion can be flung with abandon on clothes, hair, skin. And for those looking to truly leave a mark, the addition of water (or Heineken, in the case of my more inventive cohorts) and a squirt gun with which to fire the resulting dye leads to a long-range color weapon. In a way I’ve never seen at another festival, the day is purely about fun and frivolity.

Our own Holi experience started off just right. After dressing in the requisite pale clothing–what’s the point of getting splattered with colors if they aren’t visible?–we met up with a pack of friends for brunch. I had my first Dutch pancake (12.6 inches across!) at a restaurant that offered literally dozens of different pancake flavors from which to choose. (I went the brown sugar route, while my husband tried the pineapple.)  After our tummies were contented, we walked to the Phagwa festivities at the Palmentuin (or “Palm Garden,” for non-Dutch speakers like myself). That’s when the civility wore right off.

For the next several hours, it was all sneak-attack powder-dumps and squirt-gun shots fired from afar. Lining up on either side of the path, we made a kind of firing squad as we dumped powder on clean-shirted passersby and the children on the train trundling through every few minutes. My husband and I got in a fire fight that I quickly lost, since I was armed with dry powder and he had no compunctions about spraying me down with a purple dye that soaked straight through my shirt. A gorgeous sunny day and rounds of Heineken (one of Suriname’s two beers of choice, the other being the local Heineken “subsidiary,” Parbo) lent the day an effervescent quality. Hours of laughter and paint and happy company lured me into a light-hearted mood I hadn’t known in quite a while.

Sure, it took 5 showers and 3 lengthy lap-swimming sessions before I’d scrubbed away all the red in my elbow creases and the pink demarcating the waistline of my shorts. But my Embassy boss didn’t seem to mind my coming into work looking like an Easter egg (hard for him to judge, when Phagwa had him sporting a purple beard!). And I enjoyed the reminder of the day. I’m all for serious dispositions and contemplative thoughts. But every once in a while, it’s good to let go and just enjoy all the beauty and brilliant color life has to offer.

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