REKINDLING THE INTANGIBLE: THE TADJAH FESTIVAL
By Lloyd Kandasammy
November 16, 2003
AGAINST the background of a landscape nurtured and sustained by the time honoured traditions of the indigenous people, Guyana's tangible and intangible heritage has evolved out of a particularly rich blend of influences brought by people who came to our shores - European colonisers, the Dutch, French and the English who transported captive Africans to provide forced labour on their plantations. In 1838, after emancipation, indentured servants from Madeira, India, Africa and China contributed to a potpourri of cultures out of which have emerged distinctive customs.
Intangible culture relates to the traditional visual designs, music, drama, dance, folklore and religion and other aspects of our lives, which testify to the past without which the present would have no future.
The Tadjah (or Tazzia) festival, once elaborately celebrated by Indian immigrants on almost every estate in British Guiana during the 19th century, is one such example. It has vanished from our cultural heritage.
Moslems staged this festival annually on the tenth of the Arabian month Mohurran 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.
The festival was observed especially by the Shiites who fasted for 13 days, which required them to abstain from all work. Given the requisites of plantation labour this would have been impossible. Consequently, they abstained from strong drinks, nuptial commitments, 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 representative of a miniature mosque. It was built of light and pliable materials: the framework of slight bamboo was 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 20 to 50 feet.
East Indian Tadjah Festival in Berbice
The cost of construction was high and imposed a heavy tax on the indentured labourers, who were expected to contribute no less than 48 cents (equivalent to two days earnings) each. In some cases the cost amounted to well over $200.
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: Rast-hath, 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 to 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 about an hour allowing for priests to recite prayers (fathia) and perform other ceremonies. Cakes, milk, sugar and money were laid as offerings whilst ghee lamps were lit by females. 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 Karnbela. 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 sprung upon the women and children who pretend 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 Essequibo Court. Mr. Robert Bunburry claimed that he was assaulted by a group of Indians for not dismounting his horse and for passing too close to the shrine at Hampton Court and hence, threatening it with pollution. The magistrate dismissed the case stating that the government sanctioned the Tazzia festivals.
There were numerous other cases of attacks against Europeans such as Messrs. Colin Smith and James Smellie who were dragged from their vehicle and nearly murdered on account of not showing proper respect to the Tazzia. 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 the processions 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 that was regarded as lacklustre.
This decline has been attributed to a number of factors such as the high cost of staging the festival and the restrictions imposed by the colonial authorities.
In later years it was noted that prizes were awarded by managers of estates for the most colourful and decorative Tazzias 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 religious affairs.
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 and marching along with the processions on the estates. Brian Moore said 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 (e.g. the Fula) and their children may have embraced the Indian Muslim festival as a means of shoring up their resistance against the elite cultural dominance.
Creole participation increased considerably throughout the 1870s and 1880s.
The following is an account of the first all Creole Tadjah from the Royal Gazette of April 19, 1873:
The news from Essequibo of a Creole Tadjah, originated and observed by black natives, which was celebrated at Plantation Sparta during last week is a warning note to clergymen and other moral teachers of a new religion, which promises to find great favour with the Creoles in country districts.
At Sisters Village, yet another festival was staged in 1873. It was stated that this celebration 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.
The festival's popularity grew and even attracted the participation of the Portuguese. At Daniels Town, a Portuguese artist constructed a Tazzia for the Creoles. The 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 Tazzias was nothing new as Chinese were sometimes employed to build the gaudy temples for the Indians.
In 1877, another festival was staged by Creoles at Mahaica; the following is an excerpt from a letter from an anonymous writer, which was published in the Royal Gazette on February 27, 1877, expressing similar sentiments of the sacrilege of the staging of the festival.
I happened to be in Mahaica Village on the day of the Tadjah festival, held by the Creoles of the different villages, and to my utter surprise and disgust I was shown the molten image with paraphernalia that qualifies the god of their imitation - Mohamed. Before the altar of this unknown god, there grovelled the sons of the soil whose creed from childhood was Christianity.
Indians regarded the participation by Creoles as a desecration of their religions 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.
Many retreated and abandoned their celebrations all together. In 1880, the Argosy stated 'that although Indian participation was dwindling, the festivals might remain a local institution owing to the Creoles.'
European status quo threatened
Colonial Officials were alarmed at the participation of the Creoles arguing that they might be led astray from their Christian beliefs. This was the primary reason behind the restrictive policies of the European elites who considered the festival a nuisance.
The barrier of cultural practices which threatened to transcend the primary racial divisions which secured the status quo of the whites threatening their control of the colony's affairs. '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.'
Ordinance No. 16 of 1869 required that all celebrations of the Tadjah festival be granted permission by either the magistrate of the district where the plantation is situated or from the police for preventing disorderly conduct. In addition, the magistrate had to be supplied with the names of those participating and days on which the festival would be celebrated at least 15 days before the fixed date of the celebrations.
The magistrate would then grant written permits defining the route and procession of the Tadjah and the limits of the festival. Permission was also required if estates wished to unite in their celebrations. Tadjah processions were prohibited 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 and all processions had to be kept on the left half of the road. Gathering or formation of groups was also prohibited as colonial officials kept a tight noose on the nature of the celebrations in the latter half of the 19th century.
Further restrictions such as the need for worshippers to cease playing all music, shouting and making noise whilst 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 the 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 estates, thus providing them no opportunity to showcase their culture which was an integral component of their religious beliefs a symbol of resistance to the cultural power of the British.
Today, our intangible heritage is in danger of being erased unless proper documentation and, subsequently, its dissemination, either through professional or informal educational policies, are undertaken to ensure its survival from generation to generation. To lose our culture would be devastating and would result in a nation without its identity.