by Jeniffer Riney
With literally millions of events to entertain New Yorkers everyday, thousands of people gathered in South Richmond Hill to participate in one of many Holi Festivals, or Phagwah Festival of Color, taking place all over New York. Celebrated during the last week of March by Hindus all over the world, the festival on this March 30th, was to commemorate the departure of winter and to welcome the fertility and vivaciousness of spring. To the more religiously devoted Hindus, the Festival of Holi is to also rejoice in the triumph of good over evil.
Twenty floats, approximately 30 feet long, lined Liberty Avenue in South Richmond Hill as they waited for the green light from the NYPD to proceed down the 13-block route to Smokey Oval Park. Overflowing with people dressed in traditional Hindi garbs, the floats carried adolescents and adults alike, either dancing or singing popular Bollywood Holi songs; or competing for who could play the loudest music on enormous sound systems. Stores along the business district of Liberty Avenue remained open, passing out fliers and business cards while enticing prospective clients with tables filled with free water bottles and snacks. The residential portion of the parade route saw people pouring out of their homes, while blasting more Bollywood songs from their living rooms. Standing out on their front porches, people passed out plates of authentic, home cooked, Indian food. The Holi ritual of applying powder or tossing colored liquid to one another’s faces with brilliant pigments of purple, yellow, red, white and green, had met the face of every man, woman and child. The streets were peppered with confetti and the sweet smell of the talcum power permeated the air as did the warm sunshine through the clouds. People from all five of New York’s boroughs attended.
Brooklynite Lisa Llanes searched the Internet looking for Holi events in and around New York City. “I have always wanted to go to India to celebrate Holi,” Llanes said, standing next to her boyfriend Brian Booth. “Coming to this parade is the shorter, cheaper version,” she continued. She eventually learned about this festival through her Indian friends, and with all the constraints governing other events, which is antithetical to the spirit of Holi, she decided that this was the best choice. “I thought that considering the area, there would be less restrictions and would be the most authentic experience.”
Llanes could not have been more correct. The spirit of Holi is one of jovial release, and no person escaped getting some sort of colored powder on his or her face.
Many people had so much powder on themselves they were unrecognizable. No person is combative or puckish to another for throwing powder, and in fact, no one is bellicose for any reason whatsoever. Instead, everyone is joyfully celebrating life. Children are released from the usual disciplines and scolding and are given pardons for mischievous behavior, including throwing colored water on someone from huge squirt guns. Likewise, adults are also forgiven any offense usually not allowed, for example, belligerence while intoxicated. All infractions and wrongdoings are excused during Holi. People are encouraged to enjoy themselves and are given absolution during the festivities, which is the true heart and soul of this jollification. Most celebrations in Manhattan did not adhere to this unfettered occasion, which was what made the journey to South Richmond Hill all the more worthwhile.
A tight knit, working class, Indo-Guyanese and Trinidadian community, South Richmond Hill has participated in these particular festivities of parades and merriment for the last 25 years. The tradition of this religious spring festival of colors, largely celebrated in India, made it’s way to Queens, when Indians forced to travel to Guyana to become laborers had in turn immigrated to the United States. Leela Singh, owner of The Good Life Hindu Temple Of New York Inc., had a table of bottled water, soda and apples to give away to people passing by. Born in Guyana, Singh arrived to the U.S. 30 years ago. “My grandmother was a laborer, and I was born there,” she recalls. “My grandmother taught me about Holi and I have passed it onto my children.”
Though mainly Indo-Guyanese families came to partake of this cheerful ceremony, other ethnicities attended as well.
First year Pratt students, covered head to toe in colored powder, Dominic DeMartini, Ivanna Mazza, Michaela Kalmar, and Katie Curto all live on the same floor in the dorms. They had also searched Facebook and the Internet looking for an exciting weekend get together. “This is so awesome,” Kalmar said enthusiastically. “We’re not sure the exact reasoning behind it, but we’re really having a great time.” An exchange student from Hong Kong, she had never experienced anything like this before. Her colleagues eagerly agreed. “I am from Venezuela,” Mazza said. “New York City has so much to do, all the time. I’m glad we found this event.” Curto, a resident of New Jersey chimed in saying, “It was surprising how welcoming this area is.” The gaiety of the event and the genuine friendliness of the people really inspired all four friends. “We want to see other things that happen in different cultures, and experience what they do,” said DeMartini.
The parade, followed by it’s revelers, made their way from Liberty Avenue to Smokey Oval Park, where they awaited more food and games, but most of all, more powdered color to cake onto already colored faces.
Singh stood in front of the temple she, with has run in this area for two and a half years, a big smile on her face, proud and pleased to see so many happy people. “This is a blessed occasion. It’s like celebrating New Years.”