Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A World of Ceremony and Ritual

     An amazing aspect of Third Word travel is the variety of rituals and ceremonies one comes across, especially in areas where tribal peoples aggregate. The most dramatic of these we encountered in our travels was the time we stumbled onto a curing ceremony being conducted to help a young child recover from a high fever. We came upon a group of middle aged women assembled in a field somewhere in the most rural section of the state of Orissa in India. We learned that the participants belonged to the Kondh tribal group and that they had come together to magically disburse the child's disease. We secured their tacit permission to watch them at work as well as to take photos. It was as if we were invisible insofar as they were concerned. The sequence of events included the leader of the group (the head medicine doctor of the village) imbibing something which helped her reach an altered stage of consciousness, the slow and painful disembowelment and sacrifice of a pigeon and a chicken, the appearance of the sick child and his mother from the nearby woods, the smearing of the birds' blood and innards on the child after the birds were sated with rice and totally content, the child's father making an appearance with a small bow and arrow to scatter the disease away from his son, the bathing of the boy with bottles of water and the eventual return of the family to the wooded home whence they came. There are more details but you probably would not believe me anyhow. I could hardly believe my own eyes.

     On another trip to India, my favorite destination, we encountered an almost equally incredible event. We visited the Meenakshi Temple in the southern city of Madurai. In the evening, the Brahmans take the symbol of Shiva, the god of destruction, and carry it all the way from one side of the temple to the other to place it within the shrine of his wife, Meenakshi, so that the two gods may bed down for the evening. In the morning, the ceremony is reversed. The shrine is carried in a palanquin by a cadre of Brahmans accompanied by a group of musicians and followed by a few faithful devotees who chant along the way. We had no idea that this went on every single night of the year but we were surely thrilled that we had come across it.

     Throughout the African continent there are countless ceremonies which mark religious or family occasions. In Benin, I attended a couple of voodoo gatherings in villages along our travel paths. I remember one that was especially dramatic. The drum-accompanied dancing was a common background for such events and there was almost always an elder who led the way. In this particular one, an older woman priestess started the dancing after coming out of the village fetish house and drinking some undefined liquid at the same time. It was not long before she floated away in a deep trance and had to be carried back and laid down in the fetish house to recover. The entire village reverberated with the music and the participants included some as young as two years old who entered the dance circle and performed admirably. Some of the little ones on the periphery played with traditional toys that kept them busy including pet birds with a string on one of their legs. The entire scene was surreal. In other such ceremonies we saw men and women drink and dance themselves into another world, drink blood from sacrificed animals and carry a goat's head in their mouth as they circled a fire. The whole region is filled with such happenings.  Voodoo variations exist in the new world also, especially in Brazil where Candomble and other forms are practiced. The ceremonies there are a bit milder but drink, dance and spirit figures are major parts of the religion.

     Special rituals mark developmental moments in the lives of many traditional peoples although these are not always accessible to the tourist. A comprehensive funeral with unlimited guests, animal sacrifices, wooden effigies of the deceased and other such artifacts is common in Indonesia; such ceremonies are especially colorful among the tribes of Central Sulawesi. In the jungles of New Guinea, young men are introduced into the tribe with tattoos resembling alligator scales carved into their back with a long sharpened bone of a flightless bird. Young men in Cote d'Ivoire go to live in the jungle with elders for months to learn about their way of life of their people as do Dogon youth on the escarpments of their tribal areas in Mali. Kathakali dancers spend hours making up their faces before performing on the West coast of India. Longhouse dwellers in Borneo take in their ladders at night so their enemies don't come looking for cannibal subjects. The world is filled with such incredible and fascinating events from end to end. Just exploring the colorful rituals available to visit would make a wonderful and informative trip through the traditional world.


Chicken Eating Rice from Boy's Neck
Kondh Curing Ceremony, Orissa, India

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Joan said...

It's the ceremonies, rituals AND the markets that I missed by not accompanying you both on these trips!!

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