Hosay in St. James

The Procession The Procession Reporters
Event Date: January 27- February 01, 2007
Posted: February 04, 2007

The commemoration of Hosay is a Shiite Muslim commemoration of the death of Imam Hussein and his brother Hassan (both grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad) at the Battle of Kerbala in Persia, now known as Iraq. The word Hosay comes from the name 'Hussein'. Elsewhere in the Islamic world, on the day of Ashura, Shiites also commemorate the death of Imam Hussein.

In Trinidad, the observance was brought by East Indians who came to the Caribbean during the period of Indentureship. Every year Hosay is observed in St. James (as well as in Cedros) with a parade of colorful Tadjahs accompanied by tassa drummers. The St. James parade is organized by the St. James/Cocorite Hosay Association. Muslims emphasize that Hosay is not a festival or a celebration but a serious and solemn observance. This has important implications for how they go about Hosay.

Muslims would fast and abstain from sex during the days of Hosay, leading up to the processions occuring on three consecutive nights which are referred to as the Flag Night, Small Hosay and the Big Hosay. For all the procession nights of Hosay, St. James was transformed; the usually traffic-ridden main road was clear of cars, and the bars turned off their music. There were vendors selling Indian sweets and drinks.

Flag Night is the eighth night of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic Lunar Calendar (called Hijra). The night is dedicated to Abbas who was a flag bearer of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. Shiite Muslims all over the world commemorate the martyrdom of Abbas.

In Trinidad, Flag Night is the first of the three nights when the procession, comprising of different Hosay yards and their tassa drummers, takes place. The Hosay yards were a buzz of activity as members tightened and heated drums, worked on building the Tadjahs, and conducted prayer sessions, referred to as Neejah. In the Balma Yard, the designers worked steadily inside the Imambara (structure that houses the Tadjah), while drummers heated up drums, and the elders of the yard relaxed and explained the history of Hosay. After 11 pm, the alters and tassa drummers associated with the five Hosay yards left their respective locations and met on the Western Main Road for the first of the three night processions. The alters have wheels for easy movement during the procession, and have a number of flags (in honor of Abbas) attached.

Tassa drumming is a central aspect to the event and during the Hosay, special spiritual hands (rhythms) of the drums are played. Drummers would heat up their drums in small fires lit at the side of the road. While the drums were traditionally made from animal skin, which would need to be heated up to get the best sound, many of the drums are now made from a synthetic material which does not require heat.

There are 5 Hosay yards connected to the St. James observance, the Cocorite Hosay Yard, Bis (Bisnath) Yard, Balma Yard, Panchaiti Yard and the Ghulam Hussein-Ali Hosay Yard. Apart from these five yards, there are two additional yards referred to as 'Moon Yards' from which the Hosay Moons emerge.

On the second night of the procession, Small Hosay Night, traveled to the Cocorite Hosay Yard in Harding Place, Cocorite, the only Hosay yard in the St. James observances that is based outside of St. James. The yard, presently headed by Inshan 'Shano' Ali and chief designer Eddie Soodeen, has been carrying on the Hosay observances for over 120 years according to one member. In telling their story, they related that their present space in Cocorite is very small, and they have to conduct their prayers in the road. After having written to a number of authorities for assistance, they say not a single one has replied.

As 11 o'clock approached, tassa drummers began to gather outside the small Cocorite Hosay Yard. Devotees circled the flag-decked alter carrying the small Tadjah, followed by a flag bearer carrying two flags. The tassa drums began to roll, and the Cocorite group slowly made their way from their Cocorite base to St. James, pushing the alter with the miniature Tadjah attached. In St. James, they would join the other yards for the procession of the small Tadjahs.

The biggest and most exciting night is the Big Hosay. The big exquisite Tadjahs (representing the tomb of Imam Hussein) and the Red and Green Moon come out on this night. Five beautifully designed Tadjahs, each of a different colour and design from each five Hosay yards would be part of the procession. Furthermore in regards to the half moons, the red moon represents the bloody death of Imam Hussein in the battle of Kerbala and the green moon represents the death by poison of his brother Hassan. In the Green Moon Yard, the moon men are preparing to dance the moon by strapping padding around their body. According to one Muslim, dancing the moon is a kind of rite of passage for young males, as when they dance the moon, then they become a man. The moon men all dressed in white, dance the obviously heavy moon from the yard to the Western Main Road. The green half moon is mounted on the dancer's shoulders and he twirls it by spinning his body in circles, an exercise requiring strength and skill. One person dances the moon, and a person from the group of surrounding moon men take the dancer's place when he gets tired. The inexperienced moon dancers may be only able to dance the heavy moon for several seconds, but the more experienced dancers can go for much longer.

There are many dimensions to the Hosay commemoration. Even before the procession had begun, a group of Muslims dressed in white set up a small stall at the corner of Bournes Road with signs about Islam, Hosay and the crime situation in Trinidad. They belong to the Imam Mahdi Islamic Community and while their placards may be interpreted as a protest, they explain that they did not come to protest or be against any other Islamic group but rather to share their perspective on Hosay. Their role, the members explained, is to emphasize the spiritual message of Imam Hussein and bring back the commemoration to a more sacred tone, while also informing people about Islam.

Meanwhile, on the Western Main Road, the crowd had started to gather to witness the third night procession of the Hosay commemoration. As the Cocorite group approached from the west, tassa drums rolling, the Red Moon danced towards them, followed by the enthusiastic crowd. They met at the bottom of the Fort George Hill and there was a loud exclamation from the crowd as the Green Moon 'kissed' the exquisite giant Tadjah. Both the Moon and the Tadjah headed towards the center of St. James where the other Tadjahs and the Red Moon had come out. By that time the crowds had swelled considerably as the rhythmic sounds of the tassa drums rang out loudly.

One of the highlights of the commemoration was the showdown between the Ghulam Hussein-Ali Yard and the Cocorite Yard. Both groups lined off next to each other and there was a long period of rhythmic and frenzied drumming as the mass of spectators looked on in excitement. The commemoration would go on into the wee hours of the morning.

The following day is known as Kerbala Day and takes the form of a daylight procession from St. James to QRC along a set route. The QRC grounds are considered a sacred ground by the Hosay devotees as this is where the prayers have been conducted since the 19th century when the St. James/St. Clair area was a plantation.

On the 13th day of Muharram, Teejah Day, the Tadjahs are dismantled and pushed out to sea.

The Hosay Festival is an important commemeration of the local Shiite community, a rich tradition that has been kept alive since 1854. It is a tradition that persons have lost their lives defending. It was during the Hosay Riots of 1884 in San Fernando that 22 persons were killed and 120 wounded as the police opened fire on the Hosay crowd as they marched in defiance of the ban on parades by the British colonial authorities.

Hosay in St. James in pictures:

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