The Tadjah Festival History This Week
By Lloyd Kandasammy
Stabroek News
December 22, 2005

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Guyana's cultural tapestry is indicative of the potpourri of cultures out of which have emerged distinctive customs. This is reflected in the traditional visual designs, music, drama, dance, folklore, religion and other aspects of our lives, which have been handed down from one generation to another representative of the cultural heritage of the people of Guyana.

The survival of these traditions testifies to the resilience of the immigrants in alien society despite the attempts by the Europeans to repress their expressions and native customs. In many cases the cultural elite was unsuccessful but in other cases they managed to succeed.

The Tadjah (or Tazzia) festival, or the 'Coolie man kismas' as H.V.P. Bronkhurst once noted, was elaborately celebrated by Indian immigrants on almost every estate in British Guiana during the 19th and 20th centuries before it was suppressed by colonial authorities who were concerned that the inhabitants of Guyana would be able to unite through cultural expressions and could threaten the status quo.

Annually on the tenth of the Arabian month, Mohurran, Moslems, particularly the Shiites, staged this festival to commemorate the martyrdom of Hassan and Hussein, the two sons of Ali and the prophet's daughter, Fatthima, who were persecuted and murdered by Caliph.

They fasted for thirteen days, which required them to abstain from all work. However, the stipulations of plantation labour would have made this impossible. In the circumstance, they abstained from strong drinks, nuptial commitments, and use of the bed and the consumption of meat and fish, devoting all spare time to the building of the tazzia.

Constructed with great skill, the Tazzia was a model of a miniature mosque. It was built of light and pliable materials: the frameworks of slight bamboo were 'intricately connected wickerwork style and neatly covered with folded, multi-coloured tinsel paper ornamented with gold and silver trimmings.' The height of the tazzia varied from twenty to fifty feet.

The cost of construction was high and imposed a heavy tax on the indentured labourers who were expected to contribute no less than forty-eight cents (equivalent to two days' earnings) each. In some cases 'the cost amounted to well over two hundred dollars.'

Within the Tazzia were two small coffins representing the remains of Hussein and Hassan. Hussein's coffin contained 'the Ullams (his standards): the Nal, the shoe of the horse on which he fought: the Neesa, on which his head was borne by his enemies: Rasthath, or the right hand with the five fingers which were cut off during the battle and the Purmesht-reg, or a handful of sand designed to represent the grave.' Garlands of flowers were also placed within the Tazzia.

After the necessary preparations, the completed Tazzia was attached on two long poles, extending front to rear, to be borne by a number of men. The number varied in accordance with the size of the Tazzia, which often signified the wealth of the owner or group involved in the celebrations.

The Tazzia was then taken three times around a raised mound, 'the plain of Kerbela', signifying Hussein's fall. Here the followers rested for approximately an hour, allowing for priests to recite prayers (fathia) and perform other ceremonies. Cakes, milk, sugar and money were laid as offerings, while females lit ghee lamps. Bronkhurst notes that the worshippers embraced each other and wept placing the head on the right shoulder of the other and then the left. Only Moslems were allowed to witness this scene.

Thereafter, the 'Tazzias were again borne on the shoulder high and carried in a procession to enact and revive the fight at Kerbela. Followers shouted at the top of their lungs Shah Hassan! Shah Hussein! Dholla! Dholla! (Bridegroom), Hoce Dwast (alas my friend)! Rhuerto (stop)!' The procession stopped periodically and worshippers danced around the Tazzia.

Some male dancers (Puli Vesham) almost naked were costumed as tigers with their bodies striped with yellow and black paints. James Rodway notes that these dancers jumped, capered and sprang upon the women and children who pretended to be frightened.

Others engaged in stick fighting (gatka) and a display of acrobatic and magical feats. The women who were engaged in the procession often mourned by beating their breasts and tearing their clothes) whilst shouting the same lamentations. As in India, 'the tazzias were stripped of their fineries and thrown into the river or creeks'.

The warlike demonstrations, which followed the throwing of the Tazzia into the water, soon led to violent attacks against non-Indian groups. In June 1886 a Tazzia case was tried in the Essequibo court, but the magistrate dismissed the case) stating that the officials had sanctioned the festival. He noted the number of complaints reaching the office regarding attacks against Europeans by those participating in the procession.

Violence was not limited to clashes between Europeans and Moslems but also among the immigrants and later between Creoles and Indians. In 1867, two revellers were killed and several others were seriously injured on the East Bank of Demerara when rival processions clashed. In the 1890s Durguh Pujah, a Hindu celebration, and Muhurran came to be celebrated at the same time. Violence erupted as each procession crossed paths.

There was a discernable decline in the Tadjah Festivals during the 1880s. Between 1880 and 1890 only Plantation Non Pariel in 1882 staged a tazzia festival. It was regarded as lacklustre. This decline has been attributed to a number of factors, such as the high cost of staging the festival, Creole participation and more importantly the restrictions imposed by the colonial authorities.

From an early period Creoles became involved as bearers of the Tazzia. In 1860 it was observed that the juvenile Creoles amused themselves in the festivities joining in every aspect of the celebrations marching along with the processions on the estates. Brian Moore asserts that their participation in the festival may have been out of genuine interest, for it is probable that the small minority of surviving African Muslims may have embraced the festival. In 1880 a report in the Argosy newspaper stated 'that although Indian participation was dwindling, the festivals might remain a local institution owing to the Creoles.'

On 19 April 1873, the first all-Creole Tadjah festival at Plantation Sparta was reported in great detail by the Royal Gazette. In that same year three other festivals were staged at Sisters Village, Daniels Town and Plantation Leonora. The Royal Gazette reported that the celebration at Sisters Village resembled a "masquerade band as the revellers marched with martial thread and about one hundred women brought up the rear contorting themselves to the eternal cake walk."

Africans were not the only participants, but Chinese and Portuguese were also integrally involved as they were contracted from time to time to construct the ornately designed tadjahs for the festivals.

At Daniels Town a Portuguese artist constructed a Tazzia for the Creoles. This festival was staged on Good Friday in 1873 much to the displeasure of the colonial authorities who considered it sacrilege to associate the culture of the immigrants with Christianity. It should be noted that the contracting of 'outside' forces to construct tadjahs was nothing new as 'Chinese were sometimes employed to build the gaudy temples for the Indians.

Indians regarded the participation by Creoles as a desecration of their religion and their initial reaction was to attack Creole tadjah physically. In one such clash at Plantation Leonora in 1873, the Indians broke up the procession, destroyed the Tadjah and chased away the Creole revellers. However, they were not successful in dampening the spirits of the Creoles.

In later years the festival continued to dwindle and became heavily commercialised, with little regard for its religious significance. Prizes were awarded by managers of estates for the most colourful and decorative tadjahs in a bid to resuscitate the declining festival. But more startling, was the promotion of the annual celebration by the owners of rum shops, which led many to believe that the festivities had degenerated into mere drunken revelry and saturnalia and could no longer be regarded as a religious affair.

Colonial officials were alarmed at the participation of the Creoles and grave concerns were expressed over the 'pernicious effects which the heathen immigrants were having on the Creoles' who, it was argued 'were being led astray from their Christian beliefs' and not heeding the preaching of their white preachers. This sentiment, though far from the truth, is perhaps best expressed by Bronkhurst who stated 'it is indeed a great pity that the Coolie immigrants are thus allowed to carry all their heathenish abominations in a professedly Christian country like British Guiana, we do not believe that any act or interference of the home parliament or colonial government will put an end to them, the practicing of the gospel must put an end to them.'

This argument was used to justify the restrictive policies of the European elites who considered the festival a nuisance and a threat to their authority. It was the threat of cultural fusion, which alarmed the planter class. According to the record of one session of the Combined Court, one planter noted:

'As it is, we hear complaints being made that the Coolies are becoming more and more riotous during the celebration of their annual festival, but matters will be worse if, through any motive, they can get the blacks or any other class of labourers to act with them.'

The concerns of the cultural elite were finally endorsed by the colonial government who on 19 January 1871 implemented a series of strict regulations via Ordinance No. 16 of 1869. The continued threat to the public as a result of the 'high' incidence of violence was cited as the main cause for the introduction of this legislation to ensure that 'the business of the Tazzia was conducted in an orderly way.'

Indian immigrants wishing to stage the festival on any plantation were required to 'choose from amongst themselves a certain number of headmen not exceeding six in number whose duty it will be to regulate, control and take charge of all processions and to carryout such instructions as they receive from the Magistrate of the district or from the plantation.'

In addition, the magistrate had to be supplied with the names of those participating and the days on which the festival would be celebrated at least fifteen days before the fixed date of the celebrations.

The regulations also prohibited Tadjah processions from entering 'the precincts of the city of Georgetown and New Amsterdam' If the need arose to use a public road, the selected headmen were charged with maintaining law and order. They had to regulate the march of the procession so that no obstruction was caused to the general public. Processions were not permitted to occupy more than half the width of the road. It was further specified that all processions be kept on the left half of the road.

Further restrictions, such as the need for worshippers to cease playing all music, shouting and making noise while along a public road and coming into contact with other vehicles drawn by beasts of burden were imposed on the immigrants. Failure to comply with these regulations often led to imprisonment with or without hard labour not exceeding six months or the payment of a penalty not exceeding $96.

These restrictive policies no doubt allowed the colonial authorities to control the festivities. The many clauses and requisites for staging the Tadjah dissuaded the immigrants from applying for permission and leaving the estate, thus providing them no opportunity to showcase their culture which was an integral component of their religious beliefs and a symbol of resistance to the cultural power of the British.

In the circumstances some Indians lost interest. Similar regulations were also imposed on Creole participants. Their drums were seized and they were charged with disorderly conduct. A report in the Royal Gazette of 19 April 1873 reported that a group of Creoles who had participated in the Festival at Plantation Sparta on the Essequibo Coast had been punished for their involvement in staging the procession.

Once elaborately celebrated on every estate in British Guiana, the Tadjah Festival dwindled. The last procession was held in 1917. There is no doubt that the restrictions imposed by the British had a crippling effect as many lost interest and became disillusioned.