How the Cultures of Trinidad Transformed an Islamic Festival

Indentured Indian workers brought the Shiite ritual of Muharram from overseas, shaping it into Hosay, amid influences from African drumming to colonial repression

How the Cultures of Trinidad Transformed an Islamic Festival
A Hosay celebration in Trinidad in 1961. (Alamy)

When my great-grandfather arrived in Trinidad from West Bengal, his name was documented as Abdul Kassim, although as my mother reminds me we can never know if this was the name he was actually born with. Leaving a wife and daughter behind in India, he found a new home on this island, selling fabric door to door from a suitcase. It was here that he would meet my great-grandmother, Hapijan, whose grandfather Babu Meah came to the country in one of the earliest waves of Indian immigration, most likely on an indentured contract.

Trinidad and Tobago is a land of many cultures: Indigenous First Peoples; English, French and Spanish colonizers; enslaved Africans; and Indian, Chinese and Portuguese laborers. As these cultures merged and mingled, many practices and traditions from around the world became “creolized” — absorbed by the islands’ many peoples and in the process altered into something different and new. Tracing my own family history, I became curious about what laborers like my maternal Muslim family had brought across from India during the era of indentureship, which started in 1845. The family was deeply involved in the local Islamic community; in fact, Babu Meah built a mosque on nearby Ryan Street. I became particularly fascinated by the transformation of the Islamic practice of commemorating the death of Husayn ibn Ali on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram and how that had morphed from “Husayn” to “Hosein” and then to today’s Caribbean tradition of “Hosay.” And it wasn’t just the name that changed. Many aspects of Trinidadian culture affected the ritual, from colonial suppression to African drumming.

Only 5% of Trinidad’s population are Muslim — approximately 100,000 people — and an even smaller proportion practices Shiite Islam. Yet the mourning of Muharram has become a widespread observance on the island. The tradition has roots as far back as 632 and the death of the Prophet Muhammad, which left a political vacuum that would result in the split of the religion’s two major sects: Sunni Muslims, who selected Abu Bakr, a companion of Muhammad, as his successor and the first caliph (leader of the Islamic community), and Shiite Muslims, who followed Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, believing that Muhammad’s bloodline should rule.

For decades, the two groups vied for leadership. Muhammad’s two grandsons, Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali, were considered by Shiite Muslims to be the rightful rulers. After the death of his brother, Husayn refused to pledge his allegiance to the Umayyad caliph Yazid ibn Muawiyah and gathered his supporters to attempt an overthrow of the Umayyads in 680. In the first month of the lunar Islamic calendar, known as Muharram, Husayn’s retinue of 70 men was intercepted by a 5,000-strong Umayyad army and fought in what is now called the Battle of Karbala. Husayn and most of his followers were slaughtered, and the event became central to Shiite history. The battle is commemorated as a time of mourning by Shiite Muslims and became synonymous with the name of the month.

The nature of Muharram observances shifted with the adoption of the ritual in India. Professor of religion and anthropology Frank Korom writes in his book, “Hosay Trinidad,” that, “Although many similarities exist between the Indic subcontinent and Iran in terms of performing Muharram rituals, there are some great differences as well.” In its oldest form, the Persian word “ta’ziyeh” was used to refer to the ritual dramatic reenactment of Husayn’s death. But once the custom had traveled to India, the word became associated with elaborately decorated model tombs that were carried during the public processions.

In Trinidad, this solemn occasion has taken on an entirely different expression again, resulting in the celebration we call Hosay. As is the case with much of Caribbean culture, there have been adaptations — whether through the necessity of what was available or through the merging of different cultures as they met within the various diasporic communities. At the same time, the colonial rulers were always searching for ways to sever the ties between the mainly African and Indian working-class people and their cultural identities, for strong communal bonds were seen as dangerous to the colonial status quo.

The ritual was brought to the Caribbean by Indian immigrants like my ancestors, not all of whom were Shiite — or even Muslim. What is now our modern-day “Hosay” can trace a direct line back to the very first indentured laborers coming to work on the plantations as early as 1845. Many participated in Hosay despite being Hindu or Sunni Muslim. As Korom notes, “Although the Indian origins of the rite can be observed clearly in Trinidad, there is no question that the ritual performance has gone through a fairly lengthy process of indigenization.”

The model tombs, known here as “tadjahs,” would be the central feature of the practice once it had taken root in Trinidad. At the Hosay yards — like the one my great-grandmother Hapijan grew up living across from — these constructions are now the main focus of activity.

Hapijan’s family arrived in Trinidad during the period of indentureship — which involved an influx of labor from India that would forever change the social and cultural makeup of the island. After the end of African enslavement in the British Caribbean, the owners of the sugar and cocoa plantations brought in replacement workers, with contracts lasting a period of years; afterward the workers were either granted paid passage back to their homeland or a parcel of land in the place where they had settled.

Trinidad-based historian professor Bridget Brereton told me how India became the main source of this new labor force. “Different places were tried, but India turned out to be the best solution.” By the 1840s most of India was under British control, and British policies had disrupted many of the traditional ways of earning a living. With money and resources being funneled out of India to enrich Britain, many Indians were facing impoverishment and searching for other ways to make ends meet — even if that meant leaving their homeland. Many were convinced, sometimes under false pretenses, that a journey to the Caribbean would allow them to have a better life.

And so the first Indian laborers set foot in Guyana in 1838 and in Trinidad in 1845, with the vast majority coming from northern India. Muharram commemorations were observed in Trinidad almost immediately after their arrival. Brereton notes that “as early as 1847, two years after the arrival of the Fatel Rozack [the first ship bringing Indian indentured laborers to Trinidad], we have documentary evidence that … some kind of celebration was held.”

While Muharram observance had begun as a period of mourning, its transformation, first in India and then the Caribbean, made it more of a celebratory festival. As more and more participants were attracted to the event from other cultures and religions, the processions took on a more jubilant tone. The traditional “tassa” drumming that was used by Shiite Muslims to depict elements of the battle of Karbala and Husayn’s death, along with the colorful, striking tadjahs carried through the streets, drew crowds of observers eager to participate even if they did not fully understand what was being shown. Colors, music, creativity on display — to a Caribbean audience, this felt very reminiscent of Carnival. Korom writes that “the Trinidadian form of the rite becomes ‘carnivalized,’ to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s term, so that it takes on aspects of observances occurring during periods of carnival in the Caribbean.”

It is this cultural bleed between Hosay and Carnival that became a point of contention between the working-class celebrants and the colonial powers in the 1880s. In earlier times, while the enslaved and former enslaved Africans were barred from participating in the European masquerades, they had established their own celebration in the form of “Canboulay” — a term whose suggested origin is the French “cannes brulees” (burning cane), referring to the sugar cane from the plantations they worked in.

Brereton, in her book “Race Relations in Colonial Trinidad 1870-1900,” writes that “the white and coloured members of the European culture group in Trinidad refused to accept African religious practices as genuine forms of worship.” Any customs and traditions of the African population were considered dangerous and so were suppressed as harshly as was allowed by law.

A calypso song composed in the 1880s reflects the frustration with this suppression of African traditions: “Can’t beat me drum / In my own, my native land. / Can’t have we Carnival / In my own, my native land.”

In 1877, Capt. Arthur Baker became the inspector-commandant of police. His mission was to destroy, as much as possible, the celebration of Canboulay and by extension Carnival as a whole. Although he successfully halted Canboulay celebrations in 1880, the following year bands organized to resist the suppression. Brereton writes, “Without prior notice, Baker tried to seize the torches and sticks. … When he struck against the torch-bearers, he met with united resistance from several hundred men armed with sticks, stones and bottles.”

In the four years following what is now known as the “Canboulay Riots,” celebrations were successfully repressed in Trinidad. “They did succeed in shutting it down — but not without bloodshed, not without considerable resistance,” Brereton told New Lines. Once this mainstay of Afro-Trini culture had been dealt with, the colonial authorities turned to what they saw as the Indian equivalent — Hosay.

By this time, Hosay had taken on a generalized identity as a cultural celebration of Indian heritage. In an article titled “Memory, Innovation and Emergent Ethnicity,” Korom writes of how the ritual’s religious aspect was “downplayed in favor of the event’s Indianness.” In addition to the processions of tadjahs, prayers and eulogy recitations, there was drumming, dancing and even consumption of alcohol, and an air of revelry that diverges sharply from the solemn tone of observance in other parts of the world.

The prevalence of drumming, dancing and stick-fighting as part of the festivities also attracted the participation of the working-class African population, and so the event became truly creolized in nature. Although the sound of the tassa drums had a different tone from the drumming familiar to the African community, there was a natural kinship. Across the rolling hills of San Fernando, in the south of Trinidad, Hosay commemorations became an important part of the community’s cultural traditions, which inevitably came to the attention of the colonial powers, leading to major unrest and violence.

On the Philippine Sugar Estate, a man named Sookoo (or Sunkur, as he was registered) would become a leading voice in the conflicts of the early 1880s surrounding Hosay. Sookoo, the son of Mungalee, was from modern-day Uttar Pradesh, and set sail from Calcutta to Trinidad on Sept. 27, 1881. He arrived on Jan. 8, 1882, where he became the Philippine estate’s “sirdar” — a manager who worked as the middleman between the overseer and the work gangs on the plantations. His story is detailed in Anthony de Verteuil’s book “Eight East Indian Immigrants,” in which he writes, “In the 1880s, the Philippine, like most Trinidad sugar estates, was experiencing serious problems.” The rise of beet sugar affected sales of West Indian sugar, and planters responded by cutting costs and working the laborers even harder than before. Where wages could be cut, they were, and for those who did task work for a fixed wage, their tasks were increased — in effect also a wage cut. In his book Korom documents a song by Fazal, an Indian Indentured laborer working around that time: “One time plenty task / five row have to wuk / dat have to finish before we go / o tomorrow have to finish it / for same money.”

By 1884, discontent was high among the plantation workers. Strikes and violent encounters led the colonial authorities to decide that restricting Hosay was a way to remind the Indian workers who was actually in control. Their plan was not to abolish the event entirely but to use it as a means of displaying their power.

The Philippine estate had been one of the first to hold Hosay celebrations. But on July 30, 1884, the governor approved new regulations stating that, among other things, no Hosay procession would be “allowed to enter the precincts of the towns of Port of Spain or San Fernando.”

There was heightened unrest in response to the new regulations, and so meetings were held between the stipendiary justice of the peace for San Fernando, H.P. Hobson, and the Muslim headmen of the estates and villages of San Fernando, Oropouche and Princes Town. An interpreter explained the order in Hindi to those present — of which Sookoo was one. According to de Verteuil, “Hobson considered their demeanor to be menacing and so reported the matter … to the Acting Colonial Secretary. Clearly the Government and the immigrants were on a collision course.”

Sookoo got in touch with sirdars from neighboring estates, and had a petition drafted and signed by himself, along with 21 other Hindus and 11 Muslims from 26 estates. In part, the petition reads, “Your petitioners view with sorrow and alarm the intention of the Government under which they serve to suppress their annual festival of Hosein, which your petitioners have hitherto always celebrated with the strictest regard to decorum as becoming their religious obligations.” A response soon came from the colonial secretary that reiterated that “no procession can possibly on the ground of religion claim to enter the town of Port of Spain or San Fernando.”

Then, as de Verteuil documents, “Sookoo flew into a terrible rage: ‘I can only die once,’ he shouted. ‘I cannot die twice. … There will be a mutiny.’”

Although Sookoo and other headmen from the various estates and villages were aware of the new regulations, this information had not trickled down to the rest of the population and many were still preparing their tadjahs for the upcoming processions, to be taken through the cities and thrown into the ocean as was the custom at the time. As Brereton said, “Very few of the marchers knew about this. It had not been publicized. But the colonial authorities had prepared for violence.”

Days before the procession, a train had left Port of Spain, carrying Capt. Arthur Baker and 72 armed policemen, alongside a secondary force of 20 soldiers, down to San Fernando. On the estates and the surrounding areas, Hosay activities brought out increasing crowds, until it all came to a head on Oct. 30, 1884.

“They stationed armed policemen and armed volunteers — local people who served as a semitrained militia and had firearms,” said Brereton. With Baker’s forces at all entry points to the city, the Riot Act was read out in two places. But it was read in English, which was not the language spoken by most of the participants, and even those who could have understood it would likely not have heard it above the din of celebratory noise. But once the Riot Act was read, it provided legal authorization to fire.

Bullets sprayed into the unsuspecting crowd. It was chaos — the crowd surging, people trying to escape, some bleeding. Around 20 were killed and over 100 injured as the participants scattered. Two brothers from the Chadee family were at the scene in San Fernando, where what is now known as the Muharram Massacre took place — only one of them made it out alive: Bhagwandeen Chadee.

I was able to get in touch with Jasmine Chadee, Bhagwandeen’s grandchild, and also tracked down an interview my father had done with her late brother, professor Dave Chadee. His family today don’t know much of his past; like many in the older generation of the Caribbean, the older Chadee was reticent to speak of his experiences. But they did hear some details. His brother, whose only recorded name is “Chadee” (something of a nickname at the time, which has now evolved into their current surname), was a musician — who was likely playing drums or some sort of percussive instrument at the front of the procession. “In trying to escape the gunshots, he went into the sugar cane estate,” said Dave Chadee, while speaking to my father. “There he died, and his body was found the next day. So that’s all we know.”

Jasmine recollects that her grandfather found his brother’s body, and not knowing what to do, the family ran. “It was an exodus of our family,” she said. Scared, and not knowing if there would be further repercussions, Bhagwandeen relocated to Tableland in Princes Town, where he would remain until he died in the 1970s, well over 100 years old.

Even in countries like Trinidad and Tobago, where independence was not achieved through a violent war, violence molded the trajectory of our history. This, too, has been incorporated into the festival of Hosay, with those who commemorate it in Trinidad also honoring the lives that were lost during the Muharram Massacre. In 2013, cultural activist Ravi Ji led the first yearly walk of remembrance from Chaguanas to San Fernando — with members of the Chadee family in attendance along the 16-mile march.

For my own Muslim family, Hosay was not a strong presence in our lives. The last time my grandmother attended a procession was as a child – she remembers her mother taking her to a street near their home to watch the tadjahs go by. A cousin of mine played tassa drums for the larger St. James procession in his youth, but as he became more observant of the Sunni practices of Islam he distanced himself from the Hosay traditions. It is my father, in fact, with his completely unconnected Chinese heritage, who has had the closest relationship with Hosay. He has attended the commemorations for decades, sat in the Hosay yards to watch the goatskins stretched over the drums and the decorations balanced on the tadjahs, and danced in the streets after nightfall to the sounds of singing and the beat of the drums. Perhaps, having lived near St. James for much of his life, it was easier for him to become entrenched in what has become less of a religious activity and more of a community one.

St. James, a bustling town bordering the capital city of Port of Spain, is now one of the last remaining hubs where Hosay remains rooted. I spoke to Jameel Bisnath, general secretary of the St. James/Cocorite Hosay Association about the nature of the event today. Despite the many changes Hosay has gone through in its time here, Bisnath and his fellow organizers continue to remind the public that the event is “not a festivity, but rather a solemn occasion,” according to an interview he gave in 2022. This new generation of organizers are trying to share more of the historical background of Hosay, and to bring it closer to its original somber form. But while looking to the past, they are also bringing it into the future by focusing on building tadjahs using and reusing sustainable materials (wood, paper, bamboo, etc.). Tadjahs are no longer deposited in the ocean at the end of the procession.

“They break up [the tadjahs] into very small pieces,” said Bisnath when we spoke. “it has changed from years ago, with all the Styrofoam. Now, it is more cardboard and fabric, and plenty of the parts are kept back.” Materials are reused and taken back to the Hosay yards after the event is over to be disassembled, and whatever can be salvaged is collected for the following year. In other parts of the country like Cedros, processions take their tadjahs out to the ocean, dip them in and then bring them back to the Hosay yard. “We keep most of the wood and natural materials. Certain yards bury it, but most of the yards keep certain parts which they could recycle in a different color, different design, for the next year.”

While there is still contention, especially within the Muslim community, about the current expression of Hosay and whether it is true to its origins, it remains a symbol and practice of creolized Indo-Trinidadian identity. For some in the local Muslim population, like my grandmother, Hosay is a distant memory — she admitted to me that it’s not something she thinks about often anymore. But for those in the pockets of the country where it has remained, regardless of their ethnic and religious background, Hosay is a way to come together in a shared expression of history. Culture is fluid, and even what is lost or altered gives us a glimpse into the events of our past. Whatever form it takes, our celebration of Hosay has a rich history and holds the traces of how our ancestors got here and the struggles they faced to hold on to their traditions in the face of subjugation.

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