While much breath and blood continues to be wasted over the purported differences between Indian Hindus and Muslims, descendants of Indians in Trinidad and Tobago have been setting an example in communal solidarity for the past hundred-odd years, with the festival of Hosay.
The tenth day of Muharram, Ashura, is a crucial day in Islamic history. On this day in 680 AD, Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed, was killed in the Battle of Karbala by the Umayyad forces of Yazid I.
Battle of Karbala, Abbas al-Musavi. flickr
A revered figure for Shi’a Muslims, Husayn’s martyrdom is commemorated by the observance of Muharram in many South Asian countries with a sizeable Shi’a population, including India.
Where does Trinidad and Tobago figure in here, though?
When the British colonised the Caribbean in the 19th century, they took with them Indian labourers, both Hindus and Muslims, to work on the various estates. The Indian immigrants in these colonies like Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname and Jamaica assumed a unique identity, one which transcended religion. This was evident in their cultural practices as well.
The Hindus joined the Muslims in their mourning for Husayn during the month of Muharram, participating in the processions as well. The practice came to be called Hosay, a corruption of the name Husayn.
Hosay has not just been a religious observance, but a galvanising instrument for Indians. In 1884, the Hosay procession became a political statement, with the participants protesting against unjust British regulations.
Indian migrant labourers. wikipedia
The British opened fire on unarmed processionists in an event that was recorded in the annals of Trinidad as the Hosay Massacre. It is redundant to say that the procession had both Hindus and Muslims walking, and taking the bullets, together.
Hosay today is more of a cultural than a religious event.
On the eve of the festival, prayers are offered at a sanctified spot, and two poles bearing half-moons are carried by specially designated dancers. These poles, each six feet high, are representative of the two grandsons of Prophet Mohammed. The red moon is symbolic of the beheading of Husayn, while the green or blue moon represents the poisoning of Husayn’s brother Hassan, who was poisoned eleven years before the Battle of Karbala.
The Caribbean influence lends Hosay a Carnival-like feel, while the Hindu influence is seen in the beating of tassa drums to accompany the elaborately decorated taziyas, or as they are locally called, tadjahs. These miniature mausoleums are between 10 to 30 feet high and built with bamboo, paper and decorated with tinsel, representing the tombs of Husayn and Hassan.
The procession is an odd mix of mourners singing lamentations for Hassan and Husayn, dancers and drummers.
The tadjahs, mounted on low carts are borne along a fixed route to the seaside, where they are then immersed, symbolising the funeral or burial of the venerated personages.
People from all communities are welcome to view and join in the procession, the largest of which is taken out in St James, Port of Spain. There are several famous processions which belong to different families of the region.
Hosay in Trinidad and Tobago and other Caribbean islands populated by Indians is significant on many levels. It not only commemorates the struggle of Hosayn in hostile surroundings in the early days of Islam, but also the oppression faced by migrant labourers at the hands of the British in an alien country in the early 19th century, until the attainment of Independence. This event, therefore, goes to prove how adversity is able to unite people, and serves as a lesson for Indians back at home, where divisive forces continue to seek political mileage by playing on the “differences” between the two communities.
Title image: flickr