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Colorful Hindu celebration of spring revisits Richmond Hill

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Organizers of the parade — usually held in March — moved the colorful event back a month this year in hopes of warmer weather. The march got a near-perfect day with clear skies and temperatures in the 70s.
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Tossing colored powder is the hallmark of the Phagwah Parade, attended by more than 10,000 people this year.
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Lakshmi Singh (c.), the wildly popular Guyanese TV host, poses with friends outside Phil Rizzuto Park.
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A vendor is baptized by a couple of friends as he sells flags — Guyanese and Indian — during the Richmond Hill parade.
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This boy marching in the parade is drumming with a Guyanese flair.
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Assistant Chief David Barrere, commanding officer of Queens South Patrol Borough, joins the celebration.
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Hindu classical dance is primarily a storytelling tradition and, until modern times, was performed in temples — rarely outdoors in a non-religious setting.

Hundreds from the Hindu community showed up to get colorful by tossing rainbow-hued powder at one another and to celebrate the beginning of spring at the 30th Annual Phagwah Festival Saturday in accordance with tradition.

What has also become a Queens tradition led by Indo-Caribbean organizations strong in the areas surrounding South Richmond Hill has not lost momentum over the years, but there is some concern that Hindu beliefs may be diminishing with the younger crowd.

Born in Guyana, Romeo Hitlall organized the April 14 event and has been living in Richmond Hill for more than 32 years with his wife and two children who are in college.

“We try to promote the culture so that our kids and the younger generation can continue to understand our culture. We don’t want them to lose their identity,” Hitlall said. “There’s a lot of kids who go to Catholic school or public schools where the Hindu religion is not part of the system... We try to get the young people out to participate in the religion. Back home, in Guyana or Trinidad, this is how they would have celebrated [spring], they would play with the colors.”

Also known as Holi, Phagwah was originally meant to be celebrated March 2, Hitlall said, but it was postponed until warmer weather arrived.

The organizer’s judgment call paid off with a hot, sunny day for the celebration during which powder in shades of red, blue, purple, green and white were thrown on one another.

Preceded by a parade, the full celebration at Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto Park was the scene of the “Festival of Colors” where revelers douse one another with bright powder, listen to music, dance and enjoy free food.

On stage was well-known Guyanese freedom fighter Pandit Ramlall — who arrived at the forefront of the parade in a white convertible BMW — and Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), who issued an official proclamation.

Rohan Narine follows in the footsteps of his father, Dhanpaul, as a community leader by heading up the Sadhana organization with his wife.

One of the group’s focuses is on the beach clean-up efforts at Jamaica Bay after Hindu rituals are performed on the waterway.

Jamaica Bay acts as an American stand-in for the Ganges River for prayer offerings known as “Ganga Puja,” according to Sadhana’s website.

Unlike the Ganges, the bay known for its pollution does not carry debris away like the holy river in India and Bangladesh.

But beach cleanup is not Sadhana’s only purpose, however. The group promotes domestic violence prevention and intervention in southern Queens and has teamed up with the city government to accomplish its goals.

“One of the things we’ve been doing is trying to enhance the public, private and non-profit partnership, such that the Hindu temples are coming from the non-profit/religious side and we are trying to represent city government in a way that can benefit and enhance the safety and lifestyle of the community,” Narine said. “We’ve partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Domestic Violence to spread pamphlets, to educate, and to connect people from the community who might otherwise be concerned to come out or that their identity might be revealed and they might want to keep that hidden in immigrant populations. We’re trying to give to them a safe space with services that are free.”

The Federation of Hindu Mandirs plays a big role in the city connecting different temples and organizing the Mahatma Gandhi Peace March, a seven night event in October, and domestic violence outreach.

The Phagwah celebration in Richmond Hill is currently the only one of its kind in the city and draws large numbers of Hindus from Brooklyn.

Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhallum@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4564.

Updated 12:32 am, July 10, 2018
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