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An update from Evaneos

Religion in Madagascar, between Catholicism and animism

Predominance of the Christian religion...

Today, about half of the Malagasy population is Christian, either Catholic or Protestant. In general, the Malagasy people are very religious and Sunday mass in particular is followed closely. So it's a chance for families to put on their finest clothes and go to church, the men in nice suits, and the women in beautiful dresses.

Life seems to stand still. I was very surprised on my first Sunday in Madagascar, to find the capital totally empty! It was a time for me to ask myself what was happening and to understand why the normally busy streets were suddenly deserted. The bells rang, a huge crowd came out of nowhere, and then everything was back to normal in the streets.

...mixed with animist beliefs

The Malagasy, however, have not completely forgotten their ancient beliefs and although Christianity is the dominant religion, it is mixed with traditionalanimist beliefs. For example, the Malagasy always refer to a single god, creator of the world, called Zanahary.

A deeply rooted ancestral religion

In every day life, the Malagasy however make reference to the ancestors, who play the intermediary role between the living and the god Zanahary. So ancestors are revered in a special way and worshipping them sometimes is done in unexpected ways. For example, this is the case with a festival that is the only one of its kind in the world: the Famadihana or the "turning of the bones". It's the most peculiar ceremony that I had the chance to attend.

Famadihana Ceremony @Flickr cc NH53

The "turning of the bones" ceremony

During a huge party attended by the entire family, friends, and the whole village, the tomb of an ancestor is opened and the body exhumed. The purpose of this exhumation is to change the shroud where the dead lie, so that they don't feel forgotten by their descendants. They are asked for advice and blessings, before being placed back in the grave with a new shroud.

A very festive gathering

This festival, which takes place about every 5 years, is especially expensive for the family who organises it, and it often causes them to go into debt in order to deal with the expenses brought on by it. In fact, the more people there are at the ceremony, the greater respect there is for ancestors. The festivities usually last for 3 days, during which food and drink are offered to the guests. When the ceremony itself is over, huge feasts are organised and the toka gasy, the local alcohol, flows freely! People eat and drink to the rhythm of the music, and there are performances of hira gasy, a mixture of traditional songs and dances.

If you get the chance to go to a Famadihana Famadihana during your stay in Madagascar,you should go! The people who invited you will be very happy you're there, you'll be as close as possible to Malagasy culture and you will have seen one of the most incredible ceremonies in the world!

Simon Hoffmann
193 contributions
Updated 29 September 2015
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