The Muslim community in Durban like their Hindu counterparts had to face the challenge of maintaining their religion and cultural practises in a new land when they settled in Durban. The festival of Muharram is one such practise that was celebrated within their community and went beyond religion and religious purposes. The Muharram festival lasts a period of ten days which marks the Muslim new year and also a time of mourning for the martyred Saint Imam Hussein at Karbala. Historically, in Durban the Muharram Festival was a scene of political, religious and social aspects in context. The indentured labourers, comprising of Muslims, Christians and Hindu’s saw it as an opportunity to come together and join forces at the same time saw it as gathering to oppose the law at force.
They came together from different plantations to celebrate the festival from the first till the tenth of the month, determined by the phase of the moon. It was the first indentured event to be celebrated in Durban. It was then recognised by the authorities, and they were given three days annual leave for the celebration. It was at that time that this event was resistibly labelled a ‘coolie Christmas’ by the media because of the hype in festivity. They use to perform songs, dance and make merry through the streets of Durban carrying with them a Thaziyah, which means mourning. This was basically a structure akin to a chariot, made up of bamboo and wood and had a height and made up of three levels and decorated with coloured paper. They held the belief that if they failed to observe this, they would be prone to misfortune.
They created an Imambada, close to the decorated Thaziyahs. This was a space that devotees could pray in, with fruits and milk. They also built Panjas, which was a symbol of Hussain’s right hand which was believed to be his last notion to his wife before going to battle. They decorated the Panjas in colours and flowers, and it was carried by devotees that believed they had the power to cure problems and was used to bless people that come to offer prayers.
On the tenth day, the labourers gathered around their Thaziyah singing to the memory of Hussain, beating on drums and stick fights. The Thaziyah was regarded a holy structure and devotees offered fruits, vegetables, sugar, money, praying for a birth, long life and good health. They also held plays to show the actual battle where Hussain life was lost. Some men painted their faces as tigers and took part in a Khushti which was the popular champion wrestling where neighbourhoods would compete with each other by wrestling. At the end of the day the Thaziyahs were immersed in water, the decorations were thrown in the river and the structures were taken home to be used again the following year. Their Thaziyahs were usually built near rivers for easier access for the procession. They immersed the Thaziyah in water as to serve as a reminder that Hussain was denied water during his suffering at the battlefields. In Durban, the Umgeni River was the most popular venue.
The festival is still celebrated today but not to the extent the labourers did. in Chatsworth and other Indian suburbs, Thaziyahs are still built in those neighbourhoods and still other religions partake in this celebration.