Hosein" or "Hosay" as it is pronounced locally, has its origins in a religious ceremony formerly practised by the Muslim sect known as "Shiites". The festival was first observed in Trinidad in 1884, but because of non-Muslim practices which have crept into it, it is no longer considered a religious event but a cultural festival.
In countries with large Muslim populations, such as India, Iraq and Iran, this occasion is one of deep mourning for the two brothers Hussein and Hassan, grandsons of the prophet Mohammed, who were murdered during the famous Jihad (holy war) at Kerbela in Iraq (Persia of long ago). This event was said to have taken place on Ashura, the tenth day of the Muharram month in 680 A.D. Today, it is still celebrated in this month, ten days after the appearance of the new moon.
Usually in the first half of the year between March and June, this Islamic-influenced festival begins after a 40-day fast. The event commemorates the martyrdom of the Muslim brothers Hussein and Hassan, grandsons of Mohammed the prophet. The lively three-day street procession combines tassa drumming, dancing and the carrying of tadjahs (replicas of Hussein’s tomb), which are eventually cast into the sea. Popular venues for watching and participating in Hosay activities are St James, Curepe, Tunapuna, Couva, and Cedros.
As the time approaches "tadjahs" are made mosque-like in shape, ten to fifteen feet high, marvellous in design and colour, and cleverly constructed of bamboo and multi-coloured paper, tinsel and glass. It is often said that these "tadjahs" represent the tombs of Hussein and Hassan but this interpretation is questioned by some authorities, who hold that the exquisite models have no special significance beyond revealing the impact of Hindu forms of expression. The introduction of tassa drumming, another element of Hindu culture, has added to the festive atmosphere. Our local culture is also in evidence through the Carnival type designs.
The festival is celebrated for three nights before the main day event. The first is the Flag Night when flags of various colours are taken through through the streets symbolising the beginning of the battle of Kerbala. Two nights before the climax of the festival, the "matkore" takes place, at which a very small "tadjah" is placed on a "chauk" or sanctified spot and prayers are offered for Hussein and Hassan. The eve of the festival, observed as the anniversary of the actual day of the murder, is known as "k tal kay rart" or Small Hosay. Two moons representing Hussein and Hassan are built and carried by special dancers. These structures, six feet by three are usually red, to represent the decapitation of Hussein, and green or blue for the poisoning of Hassan. Sharp blades can be seen projecting through them. The dance of the moons on this night represents the brothers' triumph over death and when at the end, the moons meet as if in embrace, the onlookers applaud with emotion.
On the following day, the final day called "shura" or Big Hosay, the "tadjahs" are , mounted on low carts or trolleys, are pulled by hand to some appointed place of assembly. Each "tadjah", as it is drawn along, becomes the centre of a small procession, of which eight or more (in St James, for instance) merge into a half-mile chain of brilliant pageantry. Thousands of Indians, mostly women, walk slowly with the "tadjahs", chanting maseehahs, plaintive songs to the memory of Hussein and Hassan. Between the "tadjahs" can be seen a spinning "moon", semi-circular in shape (about the size of half of a large cartwheel), mounted on a central pole and borne by a strong man. There is much ceremonial drum-beating and stick-fighting (the stick-play reduced now to skilful exhibitions, though formerly unrestrained and often spiced with blood).
In earlier ceremonies, men walked on beds of fire but now only the fire eating and Banaithi, the dance acompanied by whirling sticks of fire, remain. At the end of the day, the procession, led by the bearers of the tadjahs and moons, wends its way to the sea or a nearby river. By tradition the "tadjahs" are taken to a spot regarded as sacred, which in Port of Spain happens to be in the grounds of Queen's Royal College, a custom dating back to the days when canefields covered the entire district. After prayers and offerings, the "tadjahs" are cast into the water, symbolising, it is said, the funeral procession and the burial ceremony.
Hosay nowadays attracts everyone regardless of religious or ethnic grouping. Every Hosay Festival is celebrated by people all over Trinidad, principally in St James - a suburb of Port of Spain - San Juan, Tunapuna, San Fernando, Sangre Grande, Arima, Cedros, Couva, and Penal, as well as at many smaller villages. The procession at St James is numerically the strongest and perhaps the most spectacular.