When you think of Brazil, you can easily imagine the vibrant colors of South America and lovely beaches, and people dancing and singing to their heart’s content. Brazil means soccer, it means the Amazon rainforest, and it means colonial architecture and rich history. But it is also a lot more than that. You may have heard about Salvador, which is the birthplace of a religion named Candomblé. It is very widely followed and is a ritualistic and celebratory religion – something novel for you to experience when you travel to Brazil.
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The religion Candomblé is a combination of African paganism and Portuguese Catholicism. It has it’s roots in the West African Slave Trade. During the transfer of African slaves, about 40 percent of them landed in Brazil, an estimated 4.5 million of them. Many went to Bahia, which was the hub for sugar and slave trading. At present, more than 80% of the population in Brazil have African roots.
The Africans believed in a set of protector Gods who were known as Orixas. They symbolized the forces of nature like water, wind, and fire, as well as living and non-living objects like animals, colors, days of the week, or a specific food group.
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The Practice of Candomblé
The people who follow this religion often dress in white clothes and participate in dance rituals with a lot of drums playing and people singing. They make offerings to the spirits of the Orixas, who are personal protectors, mediators, and guides for the people and their creator God Olorum.
There is a cult house known as candomblé or terreiro. A man (pai do santo) or a woman (mae do santo) is the head of the house and is responsible for initiating novices. The main objective is to pray to the spirits to come into the body of the worshippers. Animal sacrifices are made, food and drinks are offered, and drumming, dancing, and chanting are done to persuade the spirits. The worshippers can dance for hours and enter into a trance like state to allow the spirits to enter their body.
The ceremony and items used are according to the particular spirit being prayed to. The house is decorated with the specific color of the Orixa and the food that is served is his favorite. For example, a ceremony in honor of Ossaim, the Orixa of Foliage, will sweep all attendees using leaves on their entire body.
How to Attend a Candomblé Ritual
There are many travel agencies who offer city tours that also list a visit to a terreiro. However, most conservative terreiros would not allow this, and if they are doing so, it is best not to visit such places. If you want to witness such a ceremony, your best option is to go to the tourist office in Bahiatursa. They have a list of terreiros that are not as commercialized, mostly away from the city but reachable using a cab.
Remember to find out when the terreiro will be open. They only hold the ceremonies on days which are considered sacred to one or the other of the Gods or Goddesses, and you must plan your visit accordingly.
Rules for Attending a Candomblé Ritual
Before you go to a terreiro, you must make sure you follow certain rules:
- It is a place of worship like a church, and it should be respected accordingly.
- Wear modest but smart clothes – nothing too revealing or short. Men can wear trousers and a shirt, and women can wear modest blouse and trousers or a long skirt.
- The area where the dancing takes place is a scared area, and even if you are tempted to join in, you must refrain from doing so.
- Take permission before you take photos or videos, so that you do not offend the mae or pai do santo.
- If people offer you something to eat, it is impolite to refuse. However, the item offered may not be for your consumption, but to offer to the Gods. Look around to check what everyone else is doing, and follow the same.
- You should not pay to attend such a ceremony, but a donation to the mae or pai do santo is acceptable.
- The language used is Yoruba, which is a West African language prevalent in Nigeria, so you may not understand what is being said.
Festival of Yemenja
On 2nd February, every year, the worshippers dress in white clothes, and go down to the ocean side in Bahia, Salvador. There they decorate the area with lit candles, images, and perform ceremonies and make offerings to Yemenja, the Goddess of the Sea.
Yemenja is believed to protect sailors, fishermen, and little children. The offerings are put into baskets for fishermen to row them out to the sea and offer them. Those who believe jump seven waves for good luck in the new year.
This festival has gained popularity with time, and both tourists and locals come down to witness it. The streets of Bahia turn into a huge carnival by the end of the day, with dancing, music, displays of fireworks, and food shops.
Washing of Bonfim
Lavagem de Bonfim or washing of Bonfim is another well-known Candomblé festival which began in 1754. It takes place on the second Thursday of January every year. A huge procession starts from the Church of Conceicao da Praia and ends at the Church of Bonfim with a lot of music, food, and dancing. The procession ends with the church steps being symbolically washed, with water that has been infused with flowers and herbs by baianas or worshippers who are barefoot, dressed in white clothes, and wearing brightly colored beads. Bright ribbons are also tied to the wrist or the fences at the church to pray for wishes being fulfilled.
Other Candomblé Festivals
Some other festivals throughout the year include:
- Senhor dos Navegantes Festival on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
- Day of the Samba on 1st and 2nd of December
- Santa Barbara on 4th December
- Our Lady of Conceicao du Praia on 8th December
As a tourist in Brazil, remember to research your options of attending a Candomblé ceremony very carefully, before you decide to attend one. It is a unique experience, which is to be treated with the right amount of respect to avoid offending the locals and making it one to remember.