Every year around the start of spring Hindus all over the world prepare to celebrate Holi, the festival of colors and joy. Those who observe the holiday use brightly colored powder—known as abir—and water to smear each other and throw in the air, signifying the spirit of happiness. Holi is based on the Hindu legend of Holika, a demon goddess, and her ultimate destruction. Her death represents victory and good over evil. Sweet foods, music, and laughter are abundant in households and temples (mandirs) during this time of year.
Indo-Caribbeans in Guyana, Trinidad, and Suriname commonly refer to Holi as Phagwah, a term of the Bhojpuri language which is a dialect of Hindi. It stems from the Hindi word “Phalguna” which corresponds to the months of February and March. Indo-Caribbeans observe Phagwah similarly to the rest of the world, celebrating with family, prayer rituals, and delicious sweets.
Growing up in Queens, NY, I spent Phagwah in the kitchen cooking with the many women in my family. My cousins and I couldn’t wait to get back from school so we could go to my grandmother’s house to make delicious Gojas, Mithais, Peeras, and Barfi. These sweets are unique to Indo-Caribbean cuisine. Brought to the Caribbean from India in the mid-1800’s by Indian indentured laborers, these foods transformed the diverse Caribbean environment and have been passed down through generations. As my cousins and I cooked, our excitement grew as we made plans to attend the annual Phagwah parade in Richmond Hill—the bustling Indo-Caribbean community where we lived.
My mom, grandmother, and aunts were all working women. On Phagwah they would take personal days off from work so they could stay home to clean their homes, perform prayer rituals, and prepare the food. Food was always at the center of our gathering. What brought us all together was not so much the holiday itself, but the cooking. The unique treats we made were time-consuming and required many hands to prepare them. Although there are many men in my family who are great cooks, preparing the traditional holiday food was left to the women.
"What brought us all together was not so much the holiday itself, but the cooking."
Cooking with the women in my family was a special time. It was the time I learned about my family history, Caribbean folk tales, and sometimes tragic stories about loved ones who had passed on. We vented about challenges we had at work and school, or talked about future goals and what we wanted for ourselves. We would even engage in a little family gossip, sharing our own opinions (that no one asked for!) with each other. Somehow, no matter what we talked about, the conversation always ended with my grandmother encouraging us to work hard and put away cash for a rainy day. Now that I am a mother, I realize the value of our time together. Family traditions and important lessons were passed down between generations through our cooking and dialogue. My future self would one day lovingly remember these foundational years. Today, I am thankful.
Even though the pace of the kitchen was fast, somehow we all knew our role. Conversations were shared as we bustled around the kitchen and moved quickly to prep, roll, fry, and repeat. One of us kneaded flour, the other would roll and fill Gojas, someone else would fry, and another would wash dishes to make room for more. After we finished making some of the sweets, my cousins and I would hide and taste them, relishing in the crunchy texture of the Mithai—only to be interrupted by my aunts yelling at us, "girls, don't eat all the mithai! Save some for your other cousins and family!"
The phone rang frequently—well wishers calling throughout the afternoon and evening. Old Bollywood songs specific to Holi played in the background, including a popular 1981 Hindi song, "Rang Barse Bhige Chunarwali" by one of India's most famous actors, Amitabh Bachchan. With rolling pins in hand and a little bit of colored powder on our faces, we sang along and moved our hips to the music. Once we were completely done cooking all the sweets, they were packaged and later shared with friends and family who stopped by later that day. These visitors often brought their own sweets to share with us, too.
"Now that I am a mother, I realize the value of our time together."
Celebrating Phagwah without my family wouldn’t feel as important. The communal cooking had the power to comfort and give my girl cousins and I a place of belonging and safety. Our identities are tied to the foods we eat—it’s a reflection of our culture and it shapes who we are. Cooking together was also a way to pass down and preserve our culinary culture; the culture our ancestors brought with them from India—a culture that survived and was transformed in the Caribbean, and then was brought to the United States.
Eight years ago I moved to Florida with my husband and kids and started my own Phagwah traditions. We cook vegetarian dishes and put on white salwars and kurtas to play with abir and colored water (it shows up beautifully on crisp white clothing!). Throughout the day we call our friends and family on video chat to exchange good wishes and laughter. My boys help in preparing the sweets; and like my cousins and I, they love sampling them as we cook together. It may not be the same as my experience, but they understand the importance of food, family, and togetherness during this time of year.