by Peter Halder
One of the impressive cultural events of long ago in Guyana was the Tadjah ( or Tazia) festival. It had a Muslim origin but was eventually assumed by Hindus. This was frowned on by the Muslims. But the festival involved nearly all communities who either joined in, observed or benefited from the spectacle that Tadjah was.
The feature of the event was a towering Tadjah structure about 30 feet high representing an ornate tomb. It was a sight to behold. It’s frame was made of bamboo but it was finished in tinsel, pieces of glass, beads, little lanterns, tassels and paper in a grand variety of bright, rich colours.
During the day, the Tadjah was taken in a procession along the road as the following shouted “Hoosein! Hassan!…Hoosein! Hassan!” over and over.
The legend was that the first Tadjah was a tomb built centuries ago by Ali, father of Hoosein and Hassan, for the two sons he lost through treacherous murder during a religious war. Ali, it was said, was the son-in-law of the Holy Prophet Mohammed. He was married to the Prophet’s daughter. Hoosein and Hassan were grandsons of the Prophet. The tomb Ali built was monumental and costly, so much did he love his two sons. The bamboo and paper structures of the Guyana Tadjah, grand as they appeared, were only poor replicas of the original.
The peoples’ shouts of “Hoosein! Hassan!” were in remembrance of the young men on the anniversary of their death, observed in the month of Mohurrum (Muharram), according to the Muslim calendar, 10 days after the appearance of the new moon.
The night scenes during the Tadjah festival were also impressive. Lights were everywhere and of all kinds – gaslamps, lanterns, candles, bottle lamps and floating wicks.
Another attraction of the festival were stick fights. They were called “gatkas”. Each fighter had two long, hard sticks called dantas – one danta in each hand. As the fight proceeded, there was no aggressive combat but rather a skilful stick play in which the dantas were struck against each other, rhythmically, as the fighters danced.
Music was made on drums- mostly large, waist-high- made from wooden barrels and sheepskin or goatskin. The drums were beaten with heavy wooden drumsticks. In a village, there were as many as 100 drums lining the roads, manned by drummers competing for applause. Drumming continued through the night, accompanied by handclapping and singing.
There were other attractions. Many of them were provided to entertain the large crowds and not because they were Muslim or Tadjah related. The food items on sale were Muslim and Indian sweetmeats . Africans sold blackpudding and souse which were detestable to both Muslims and Hindus and the sale frowned on but not prevented. Some communities even had Greasy Pole climbing or walking across and tightrope walking.
At the end of each festival, the Tadjah tower was thrown into the sea at high tide. Every year, a new one was built and decorated and again thrown into the sea.
The extravagance of the festival, it’s kaleidoscope of bright colours and the profusion of eye-catching decorations led to the creole term “coolie tadjah” to describe any get-together or party that exuded bright colours and fandangles or even a flashily dressed person.
Tadjah eventually came to an end in Guyana in the late 1930s. Alcohol caused ceremonial stickfights to degenerate into fights to the death and other acts of violence which, together, altered the character of the festival. The festival, some said, generated hostility between Muslims and Hindus which resulted in murders and other acts of violence. Some influential Muslims regarded the Tadjah festival as unIslamic and moved to have it banned. Another reason was the fact that the festival disrupted work on the sugar estates and therefore cane harvesting and sugar production. Rumshop owners, mostly Portuguese, were very upset with the ban because the Tadjah festival generated increased business every year.
While it was banned in Guyana, Tadjah continued in neighbouring Trinidad and Tobago where it was called “Hoosay”.
The banning of the Tadjah festival in Guyana brought a sad end to what was a most colourful and bacchanalian event that observed the past and celebrated the present.