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Powder, dye rain down on Richmond Hill

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Celebrating both the victory of good over evil and the warm weather, thousands flocked to the streets of Richmond Hill Sunday and covered nearly every man, woman and child in sight in brightly colored powder during the 14th annual Hindu Phagwah festival.

The parade, organized by the area's Indo-Caribbean population, mirrors a popular celebration among the Hindus living in Guyana. The festival is held in India as well but on a smaller scale than in the Caribbean.

Dr. Dhanpaul Narine, one of the marshals of the parade, said the event marks the triumph of good over evil and the change of the season.

"Spring is in the air. It's a beautiful day," he said. "Hinduism as a religion is all about peace. We see peace and love in every living thing."

Dozens of floats representing local organizations and temples started at 133rd Street, headed down Liberty Avenue and up 123rd Street, eventually making their way to Smokey Park.

Dancing to traditional Indian and Guyanese music, many on the floats threw free gifts to the crowd in a show of good will.

But for vast numbers the clear highlight was abruk, dyed talcum powder, and abeer, dyed water. Hundreds of people, mostly children, teenagers and young adults, danced through the crowd chasing each other with bags of powder or spray bottles.

Others simply picked out a spot along the parade route and tried to spew powder at everyone walking by in the crowd that drew thousands.

Traditionally, the powder signifies ashes of evil and the dyed water represents the spring harvest and the Hindu New Year, which usually starts at the beginning of spring.

The festival is rooted in a Hindu legend of a demonic father calling for the death of his righteous son. The son survives by tricking the woman ordered to kill him into falling into a fire.

But few at the parade were knowledgeable about its symbolism.

"We come here every year," said 16-year-old Sandy Persaud, who along with her friend, Nadia Gurdial, was covered head-to-toe with purple and red dye. "It's a lot of fun and it's a great way to celebrate the holiday."

Persaud said her temple, the Arya Spiritual Center in Briarwood, had originally founded the Richmond Hill parade.

Not everybody who celebrated was Hindu.

Alli Azam, a 22-year-old Muslim who grew up in Guyana, threw colored powder on passersby with his friends.

"I like it. I don't know the meaning of it," he said. "But you get to play with the girls."

Among the attendees of the festival were Kevin Birth and Murphy Halliburton, two sociology professors at Queens College.

Birth, who has studied a small population in Guyana, said the celebration was often preceded by the burning of an effigy of a Hindu demon.

While most who attended the festival were residents of Richmond Hill or the surrounding neighborhoods, others had come greater distances.

Jankie Prashad traveled from Hartford just to catch the parade.

"We Guyanese, this is all of us," she said. "Whether your black, white, Hindu, Christian or whatever."

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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