Hosay or Tadjah is a West Indian commemoration, in which multi-colored model mausoleums are paraded, then ritually offered up to the sea, or any body of water. Some contemporary writers equate the multi-colored mausoleums with "mosques." In British Guiana, now Guyana, and Suriname, the festival was called Taziya or creolized into Tadjah in reference to these floats, the most visible and decorative element of this festival. In nineteenth-century Trinidad newspapers as well as government reports called Hosay the "Coolie Carnival.
The Hosay (derived from Husayn or Hussein) celebration is a Caribbean manifestation of the Shia Muslim Remembrance of Muharram in Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica† (where is it spelled Hussay). The name Hosay comes from "Husayn" (also spelled "Hussein", the grandson of Muhammad) who was assassinated by Yazid in Karbala. This marytrdom is commemorated in the festival. In Trinidad and Tobago it is primarily celebrated in Saint James, in northwestern Trinidad and in Cedros in southwestern Trinidad. Recently it has been revived elsewhere.
In the 1950s, very elaborately decorated models of mosques made of paper and tinsel called "tadjahs" were carried through the streets to the accompaniment of constant drumming. Small fires were lit in the gutters beside the streets over which the drumskins were heated to tighten the skins of the tassa drums. Mock stick fights celebrate the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali. The festival lasts three days ending with the throwing of the tadjahs into the sea at sunset on the third day. Although Hosay is a religious event for Shias, all of Trinidad's religious and ethnic communities participate in it, and it has become accepted as part of the national culture.
The Remembrance of Muharram was brought to the Caribbean by Shia Muslim indentured labourers and other migrant laborers from India. Hindu and Muslim Indians, who emphasized their common culture and celebration over religion, namely from the provinces of Oudh and City of Lucknow, are essential to this story. These people entered Guyana in 1838, and Trinidad after 1845, from colonial India under British auspices (see Indo-Caribbean people). The first observance of Hosay in Trinidad has been traced back to 1854, eleven years after the first indentured laborers arrived from India.
In the 1880s the British colonial authorities became increasingly concerned about public gatherings, and in 1884 issued an ordinance to prevent the public Hosay commemorations. Thousands of workers, who had spent the year building their tadjahs joined a Hindu named Sookhoo, in petitioning the government to allow the festival per their agreement with the Governor, who was visiting London during this episode. When all appeals were ignored by the Protector of Immigrants, through ignorance of the new July 1884 prohibition, defiance, or both, the tadjahs were taken onto the streets at the appointed time, and in order of the estates. The first estate that took its tadjah onto the street had earned that right over the past months, and in some towns, Hosay went ahead. In Port-of-Spain (St. James) the police did not interfere, but in Mon Repos, San Fernando, on Thursday, October 30, 1884, buckshot was fired into the crowds of women, children and men.. After shots were fired by the police to disperse the procession, 22 "Indians" were killed immediately. Later, 120 were found with injuries, some of whom had run into the cane fields, to hide during the police attack. That day is commonly referred to in Trinidad history as the Muhurram Massacre by Indians and as the Hosay Riots in British and colonial records.
The North Indian city of Lucknow and the Indian State of Oudh are more important than the Middle East in understanding this Trinidad public celebration. The Caribbean East Indian festival, "Hosay" (or "Muhurram") came to the Americas from India in the early nineteenth century. It remained a pan-Indian phenomenon (meaning crossing religious, racial and linguistic lines). Hosay reached out to also include other Trinidadians, African and Creoles. The origins of Muhurram in Persia (Iran) are important, but in Trinidad, Guyana and Jamaica, the street festival is broader than a Shi'a Muslim (or sectarian) commemoration of the lives and deaths of Islamic prophet Muhammad's grandsons, Hussein and Hasan. The pious shouting out of these names, "Hussein" and "Hasan" allowed the conflation of the Indian names with that of the festival, but provided a direct connection to these role-models for ordinary (and downtrodden) Trinidadians.
In Trinidad, Indian Muslims and Hindus, and African co-workers, joined in the street parade that was open to white spectators also. Many revelers and spectators failed to see the spiritual side of this ten-day observance, especially the nine days of fasting and prayer that preceded the street celebration on Ashura, the tenth day. (In 1990, this social scientist interviewed Mr. Harry in Tunapuna, Trinidad, a Hindu who fasts throughout the ten days of the first month, Muhurram of the Muslim Calendar, while preparing for the street parade.) Indeed, Hosay was transformed by and for the plantation workers: the deaths of Hussein and Hasan symbolized their own exile and sacrifices in a harsh, sometimes socially desolate landscape, of new worlds and socieites. The colonial authorities came to see the Hosay as a threat and used massive force to quell it and keep it off the streets beginning in the 1880s. With the onset of struggles for independence since the Second World War, many East Indians (Indo-Trinidadians) and fellow Creoles have again broadened the appeal of this Trinidad festival. It has survived colonialism and efforts at suppressing its unique voice for all workers, free and bonded, and their descendents in Trinidad.
There are similarities and differences in the history and current meanings of Hosay across the Caribbean. In Jamaica, Indian-Jamaicans celebrate Hosay. In the past, every plantation in each parish celebrated Hosay while today it has been rebranded an Indian carnival and is perhaps most well known in Clarendon where it is celebrated each August.
Judith Bettelheim is a leading scholar of the Muharram or Hosay festival, and she helped the Smithsonian Institution put together a display of the Tadjahs in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s