Legacy of Phagwa Parade founder Pandit Ramlall celebrated in Richmond Hill

Family and friends of Pandit Ramlall gather in Richmond Hill with elected officials to honor his legacy with a street co-naming. (Photo courtesy of Adams’ office)

The spiritual leader who founded the annual Phagwah Parade in Richmond Hill was celebrated with a street co-naming in his honor on Sunday, June 27.

The corner of 133rd Street and Liberty Avenue is now called “Pandit Ramlall Way” named for the late Dharmacharya Pandit Ramlall, a community advocate, scholar and educator who founded the colorful Holi celebration, Diwali Motorcade and the Arya Spiritual Center of New York.

“Pandit Ramlall lived an extraordinary life filled with purpose, learning and love for his community. The new street sign honoring his legacy is a fitting tribute to a leader who contributed so much to the cultural, spiritual and educational fabric of our city,” Councilwoman Adrienne Adams said. “It was my honor to celebrate Pandit Ramlall’s life with his family, friends and community leaders. We will never forget the tremendous impact he had on the Guyanese community, Queens and the entire city of New York.”

The street co-naming ceremony and celebration, which featured prayers, songs and performances, took place at the Arya Spiritual Center Grounds, just 200 feet away from the site where “Pandit Ramlall Way” was unveiled.

“As we celebrated the unveiling of Pandit Ramlall Way, the sun was as brilliant as our illustrious nana (grandfather). May his name and legacy forever inspire thinking minds and determined characters,” said Nivedita Balgobin, the granddaughter of Pandit Ramlall. “If you can learn anything from our nana, it is that there is no rock bottom too deep to prevent your growth. Growth is the product of your own effort, not your circumstances.”

Community members gathered to celebrate Pandit Ramlall’s legacy in Richmond Hill. (Photo courtesy of Adams’ office)

Ramlallwas born in 1928 in Guyana to Indian parents who died when he was 8 years old. Through hard work and determination, he was self-taught and ordained a priest at 19 and later received scholarships to study in India and Suriname. He later fought for Guyanese independence from British rule and was imprisoned for three years in Sibley Hall prison.

While imprisoned, Ramlall, a Hindu, led hunger strikes because the prison did not offer vegetarian food. He was denied the ability to perform rituals as a Hindu priest, but due to his persistence, his demands were eventually met.

“He is a unifying figure whose absence is felt three years after he has passed,” District Leader Richard David said. “I’m proud of his accomplishments on behalf of the Indo-Caribbean people, Hindus and residents of New York. This street co-naming represents the best of us.”

Fearful of his family’s safety, Ramlall migrated to the U.S. in 1974, settled in Queens and went to work in the city’s public hospital system. He served as a union rep with Local 371, served as a volunteer Chaplain for NYC Transit and became secretary of the Queens Interfaith Council.

“Pandit Ramlall is very deserving of this street co-naming in his honor,” state Senator James Sanders said. “He was well-loved in the Richmond Hill community and beyond, especially among Guyanese religious leaders and followers of Hinduism. He has been recognized for his many contributions to Guyanese and Indo-Caribbean immigrants in Queens.”

The Phagwa Parade in Richmond Hill has become a part of the Queens cultural landscape. (QNS file photo)
The Phagwa Parade in Richmond Hill has become a part of the Queens cultural landscape. (QNS file photo)

Ramlall founded a mandir near his Briarwood home, which became the Arya Spiritual Center of New York and led the purchasing of the lot in South Richmond Hill that eventually became the Arya Spiritual Center Grounds. Ramlall founded the Phagwah Parade and the Diwali Motorcade, annual traditions and iconic events that are now part of the Queens cultural landscape. In recognition of his contributions to the borough, former Queens Borough President Helen Marshall declared March 23, 2003, as Pandit Ramlall Day.

“As the first Hindu-American ever elected to New York state office, I am deeply moved by the historic naming of Pandit Ramlall Way after a revered Hindu faith leader. The Hindu values of karma yoga (selfless action) and satyagraha (soul force) guided me to embrace this life of public service. These were the same values that Pandit Ramlall taught,” Assemblywoman Jenifer Rajkumar said. “I am humbled that a street in the heart of Richmond Hill has now been named after him, and I strive to carry on his legacy.”