Picture the scene: At the sandy coastline of Brazil’s Red Beach, the ocean waves lap gently against the shore as devout followers of Candomble gather, clad head to toe in flowing white robes. The believers make their way towards sand alters covered in fragrant gardenias and beautiful flower arrangements.
The setting is oh so peaceful and then it happens… Someone freezes in their tracks and suddenly they spiral into a trance. They lay on the beach wriggling and writhing around, screaming as they do so. The screams are so loud and intense that you would think that the individual was being tortured for information, however that is far from what is happening. Typically if you witnessed such a scene you may be tempted to call an ambulance and get help for the person but this is all part of the religion of Candomble.
Candomble followers are largely focused in Salvador – the Brazilian center of this African originating religion.
When a worshipper is seen writhing on the ground then they are participating in a holy ritual and their role is being possessed with the Candomble god of fire (Xango). The ritual is unlike any other religious ritual you have ever witnessed.
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Understanding the Candomble Religion
If you have never previously heard of Candomble then you are not alone. The religion is essentially comprised of a cocktail of others – from African pagans and Portuguese Catholics. It has been in existence for several centuries and can be tracked all the way back to the West African slave trade. Sensual, raw and unapologetic, Candomble seems to embody the classic nature of Brazilians across the country. That said, the majority of the religious population are based in Salvador.
At the time when African slaves were captured and sold on to the new world, the majority of them (circa 40% of all) were shipped and sold in Brazil. The number of them that moved was far from insignificant – to the tune of 4.5 million people at the very least.
Bahia, one of the 26 states of Brazil is situated at the northeastern part of the country. The capital of Bahia is Salvador and the region is the center of Brazil’s sugar growth and trade network. Many of the slaves came to this region to satisfy the requirement for workers to help with the sugar industry and as such, over 80% of the people residing in the area today have African roots.
The Candomble Religion is a colorful one. The gods which the African slaves followed were protectors (also known as Orixás) and they had the ability to bring to life and control the natural elements of the world. There are also particular items and beings that represent or are associated with the various god’s (for example a particular God may have a dance ritual that followers perform, or be associated with a specific animal or food dish).
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What Does Candomble Practice Entail?
Terreiros are scattered across the city of Salvador. These sites are considered as sacred areas perfect for performing religious rituals in honor of the gods of Candomble. If you intend to visit the Salvador area during a trip to Brazil, you should conduct a little research in order to ensure that your trip coincides with one of these ceremonies since they are certainly a unique spectacle to behold. At a Candomble festival, the air is filled with the mesmerizing scent of intense, and the ground shakes with the bass of the rhythmic drumming and chanting performed by the devout followers.
What is the purpose of all of these elaborate performances and practices?
The people intend to impress the protector Gods and encourage them to enter the bodies of participants.
There are some variations of the festival depending on the specific God that is being honoured. Each of the protector Gods have their own color schemes and as such, houses and sacred sites are decorated accordingly to ensure that the particular God’s sacred color is used. The favourite meal of the particular God is also usually served and enjoyed. For example, Xango – God of Fire is considered one of the most powerful Gods in the Candomble religion. His favorite foods are said to include gbegiri soup and amala (a yam dish) and as such, these foods are often served at his rituals.
Xangos celebratory ceremony is somewhat dangerous in nature (and not for the faint hearted to witness!) – it involves attendees passing each other bowls filled with fire using their heads!
The protector God of foliage is Ossaim and as you can imagine, their ceremony is much milder in nature and typically involves being dressed in plants (better to time your trip to coincide with that one)
The religion originated in Salvador but it is widespread across Brazil and as such, you will stumble across sacred sites and followers all across the country.
Notable Festivals for Your Calendar
There are a plethora of Candomble festivals that take place each year, and the cultural traveler will truly be spoilt for choice when deciding which to attend. However to give you a little food for thought, we have provided information on two of the most notable and important celebrations below.
The Candomble Festival of Yemanja
According to Candomble beliefs, Yemanja is the Goddess of the sea. Her ceremony is simplistic yet beautiful and takes place on the second of February every year. Think quiet, secluded beach beautifully illuminated by dozens of candles and hand prepared offerings. Yemanja is said to take care of children, and anyone who may come into contact with the sea such as fisherman. As the sun begins to set, the celebrations become that little bit wilder and locals and followers take to the streets to dance and enjoying good music, good food, and good company.
The Washing of Bonfim
Another celebration that has soared in popularity in recent years (among tourists and other Brazilian locals beside the religious followers themselves). This dates back to the year 1754 and is held every January. The celebration entails a loud and lively parade matching through the city. This is another fun one to attend since the celebrations are similar to a street party – with great food, colorful African style dancing and musicians. At the end of the parade, the religious followers reach the Church of Bonfim and clean the stairs with a fragrant concoction of flower water.
Ribbons are worn in shades of deep reds, intoxicating pinks and purples, and sea blues. When the celebrations draw to a close, the people remove them from their bodies and affix them to the church fences and gates as they make a wish.
Practical Tips for Candomble
If you are traveling to Brazil and you want to attend one of these festivals, or you have already made the arrangements to attend and you are not sure what to expect then maybe this advice can assist you:
- It is prohibited to take photos or video footage.
- There are many Candomble ceremonies around Brazil and Salvador. Try to conduct research to check the location of the particular event that you are interested in, and whether it lies on the tourist trail. Some parts of Salvador can be a little intimidating and not really suitable for traveling so be cautious of this before veering too far off the beaten track.
- Dress conservatively – it’s not only offensive to bare too much flesh at these religious ceremonies, it will also attract unwanted attention to you. Cover your knees and shoulders and if you can, dress in white – the traditional color of the ceremony and that which is worn by worshippers.
- Note that non followers of Candomble can only watch, and not try to join in with the convulsing or other sacred rituals of the festivals.
- If you find yourself unsure, just follow the crowd!
- There will be no definitive price for entering the festivals or witnessing, but donations are always appreciated.
- Don’t worry if you cannot speak Portuguese or Yoruba (the West African language typically spoken by Candomble followers), many festivals are accustomed to seeing foreign tourists.
- Consider taking a guide. Not only is this much safer, it also helps to ensure that you are not lost in translation. To this end, Tatur Turismo has one of the best reputations in the city of Salvador.
- Sometimes while exploring Salvador you may be approached by people selling tours. A lot of these people are unlicensed and may be tricksters so always proceed with caution and only use a reputable company.