Celebrating Holi in T&T

I have met many people on my travels who are always surprised that we celebrate Holi in Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) on a national level and in grand style too. Holi is a festival known to be widely celebrated in India in all its glory of vibrant coloured powder, dancing and singing and whilst it has become popular wherever there are Indian communities around the world, this festival has been part of T&T’s history for almost 170 years. Holi was first celebrated in Trinidad around 1845 by the Hindus who came from Bihar in India as indentured labourers on the sugarcane fields. In fact, it is more commonly called Phagwah in T&T.

Many I have met who have heard of this Hindu celebration refer to it as Indian Carnival, telling me how lucky we must be to have two kinds of Carnivals in Trinidad. But Holi is not a Carnival, there really is a religious aspect to this Hindu festival and it starts off with Holika Dahan.

The Story…

The story of Holika Dahan is an interesting one. It is associated with Prahalad, King Hiranyakashipu and Holika which demonstrated how a sinner got burnt in the heat of her own sins. Prahalad was the son of an evil King called Hiranyakashipu who was trying desperately to destroy Prahalad. Why? Because the King became self-righteous and considered himself as God and wanted his people to worship him. Those who neglected to obey him were killed with no mercy. Everyone, out of fear, obeyed the King except for his son Prahalada who refused to worship his father but instead Lord Vishnu whom he was a great devotee off.  This made the king angry towards his own son and ordered his solders to kill him with no mercy.

They were unable to kill him so the King finally resorted to an evil sister of his. Her name was Holika. Holika had powers which allowed her to be immuned from destruction by fire. The evil King ordered Holika to take Prahalad into a huge fire so that he can be killed. Prahalad’s faith in God was such that Holika’s powers were reduced to naught and she was burnt to death instead whilst Prahalad came out unharmed. It is because of this event, that Holika (a bonfire) is burnt the night before to usher in Holi where Hindus build bonfires with woods and light them in memory of burning the demon Holika. Holi symbolizes the victory and devotion of Prahlada – or simply the success of good over evil.

The Pre-Festivities…

Holika Dahan preparations begin almost 40 days before the festival, yes it is not simply a one day festival as many think it is. There is a small ritual and puja (prayer) where the first wood is placed in the spot that the bonfire would take place on the night prior to Holi.

Celebrating Holi in T&T

Holika Puja being performed 40 days prior to Holika Dahan and Holi (at the Shiv Harijan Mandir in Debe, Trinidad)

Celebrating Holi in T&T

Everyone participates in Holika puja (at the Shiv Harijan Mandir in Debe, Trinidad).

On the night before Holi, an effigy of Holika and Prahalad is placed on the huge heap of wood, the effigy of Holika is made of combustible material while Prahlad’s effigy is made of non-combustible material. The heap is set alight and people chant mantras (verses) from the Holy Book the Rig Veda to cast away the evil spirits.

Celebrating Holi in T&T

Holika Dahan at the Hindu Prachar Kendra, with my cousin portraying the part of King Hiranyakashipu in their reenactment (photo credit: Ken’s Precious Moments Photography)

Celebrating Holi in T&T

Groups like these sing in the temples during Holika Dahan (at the Shiv Harijan Mandir in Debe, Trinidad, there’s my Granny singing away).

And then there is Holi…

The Festival…

Holi is one of the messiest and most exhilarating celebrations, lots of colours in the form of paint, coloured water and powder. It is one occasion when sprinkled coloured water and powder on each other breaks all barriers of discrimination so that everyone looks the same and universal brotherhood is reaffirmed.

A special type of folk song called Chowtal is sung during the course of the festival and the music is usually played with only two instruments – the dholak (a hand drum) and the majeera (cymbals or percussion instrument). The music is fast paced and provokes dancing and the Chowtal songs are sung rather loudly and are high pitched.

Celebrating Holi in T&T

Singing and dancing to chowtal music during Holi.

Celebrating Holi in T&T

Some groups go to different locations around the country where Holi is being celebrated to sing chowtal (at the Aranguez Savannah, Aranguez, Trinidad)

But everyone, from the old to the young, is out for the enjoyment and fun. Whether they choose to celebrate at home with family and friends or the many temples and school grounds around the country, no one thinks at that moment how stained they may be the next few days. It is afterall the festival of colour! (these photos are from our family celebrations at the Hindu Prachar Kendra in Chaguanas, Trinidad).

Celebrating Holi in T&T

Celebrating Holi in T&T Celebrating Holi in T&T Celebrating Holi in T&T Celebrating Holi in T&T