On our journey from cradle to grave, we mark the most important moments of our lives with rituals and ceremonies around birth, marriage and death. These life events, and often the emotions around them, are universal. Yet across the globe we perform them in extremely different ways.
Part 1: Circle of Life
With the birth of a child, parents will do anything to protect them. In Japan a 400 year-old ceremony called Naki Sumo sees mothers hand over their babies to professional sumo wrestlers, who then compete to make them cry – all in the popular belief that ‘crying babies grow strong’. In the Brazilian Amazon, the Kayapo people believe that birth is a time of great danger, when their ancestors try to steal the baby’s soul back into the land of the dead. Until 20 years ago, they had had no access to modern medicine so many babies died in infancy. The family of 19-year-old Irenekwa perform rituals to protect her new-born son – bathing him with medicinal plants, piercing his ears to open his senses to the world, and painting him with the dye of a jenipapo fruit to express their love. For Irenekwa herself, becoming a mother is an important coming of age, giving her a new status in the community.
Around the world there are rituals that mark the transition from child to adult. In the UK, the American import of the school prom is increasingly popular. But in some cultures, young boys in particular still undergo ancient and sometimes brutal rites of passage to become men. One of the most extreme is in Papua New Guinea, where young men’s skin is cut with the patterns of crocodile scales to represent the strength and power of an ancient crocodile spirit. John has spent six months sequestered in a spirit house, learning lessons on manhood from the elders and building up fat with the help of meals cooked by his mother Mathilda. It is preparation for the cutting ceremony, when hundreds of razor cuts are made in John’s torso, each representing a bite from the crocodile spirit.
Finding a partner is often the next stage of life. In China, 21st-century teenagers perform seventh-century matchmaking rituals to find love. The girls of the Long Horn Miao wear headdresses made from their ancestors’ hair in an ancient singing ritual to help them find a boyfriend. 16-year-old Jin Mei and 19-year-old Shun Dong hope the festival will help give them the courage to confess their true feelings to their secret crushes.
In our modern world where families are often separated by great distances, rituals can reunite us and bring us back to our roots. In Niger, two Tuareg families and their guests travel into the Sahara for traditional marriage celebrations. This is a modern union, based on love – the couple live and work in the city, but have chosen to follow these ancient marriage rituals in the desert. Once they are married, they plan to set up life together in Paris.
In every part of the world we honour our dead. For many of us, funerals help us say goodbye to our loved ones, but in some cultures death is just one of several stages. In Japan prayers are offered to the dead for 30 years to help release their souls into the afterlife. But in Japan’s cities these rituals are being adapted for modern life. Here more and more people are living and dying alone, without family to perform key rituals. Some temples now provide a paid service to store the ashes of the dead in high-tech, high-rise cemeteries, where priests offer daily prayers. In Sulawesi, the Torajan people stage the most elaborate funerals on earth. Tadung’s body has been kept at home for over a year, while his family raises enough funds – the equivalent of £170,000 – for the rituals. The funeral lasts a whole week, with ceremonies to secure Tadung’s status in the afterlife.
The exuberant death culture of the Torajans also continues beyond the grave, with an extraordinary ceremony called Ma’nene. In a practise which is gaining popularity thanks to social media, families remove their dead relatives from their tombs to change their wrappings, show their continued love, and to send selfies to relatives living far away from home – modern technology unites them with an ancient family tradition. Around the world, even in our most familiar of customs, rituals give us meaning, binding us together for the most important moments in the circle of life.
Part 2: Great Gatherings
Looks at rituals that bring people together in huge numbers, and explores how these incredible ceremonies keep communities alive and help us to reinforce our own identity by joining the crowd. These rituals bind us together, whether as part of a cheering football crowd or standing silent on Armistice Day. By sharing our experiences with thousands or millions of people, rituals can make us feel part of something greater than ourselves.
Siena in Italy is a walled, medieval city divided into 17 districts. For centuries these neighbourhoods have settled their rivalries in a ritual horserace, the Palio. Avio Tanganelli is fiercely loyal to his district Giraffa, and epitomises the Sienese passion for the Palio. For him, ‘the Palio is war’. The tension mounts for Avio as each district is allotted its horse, and its form is tested over a series of trial races. On race day, the horse is ritually blessed in the local chapel, before it is led in great ceremony to the central square. Finally, the jockeys push and jostle to line up for this three-lap, 70-second race.
In Peru, communities aren’t divided by rivalry but by the vast Andes mountains. To the people of this region, the annual festival of Qoyllur Rit’I is hugely important, bringing together eight regional clans for the highest mass ritual on Earth. The pilgrims hike to 4,800m to perform rituals from Inca times, now mixed with Catholicism. Each clan dances for the others to reinforce their shared Andean culture. For the dance of the llama, herders wear llama skins and knitted balaclavas to resemble the llama’s head, while others from the lowland rainforest have costumes of vivid colours and tropical bird feathers. For some, Qoyllur Rit’i is a chance to really commit to their clan.
For Sam Vivero to become a guardian of his clan’s traditions, he must submit to a painful initiation. At dawn, by a sacred Inca glacier, he is whipped three times by the clan chief. For Sam, it is a ritual of self-discovery, and for the clans, it is a ritual of unity and brotherhood, as they stream down from the glacier and return to their scattered villages across the mountains.
Part 3: Changing World
Looks at how rituals adapt in our changing world. Rituals have always evolved, but as the pace of change increases, how do ancient ceremonies stay relevant, how do they change, and when do we invent new rituals to answer our needs?
In Rajesthan, India, Bhumi Shah is a 24-year-old business graduate who speaks three languages – she is a modern woman with many
opportunities, yet she has decided to reject modern society to become a Jain nun. This ancient religion practises absolute non-violence, with devotees walking barefoot to avoid harming any creatures. Bhumi begins a series of rituals to be initiated as a nun. First, she is dressed as a bride and parades through the street to symbolise the material things she is giving up for a life of austerity. Then before a great crowd and her new guru, every hair on her head is pulled out by hand, to show she rejects all personal desires. For her family, it is the painful loss of a daughter – for Bhumi, this ritual is an essential step towards liberating her soul.
While Jain nuns reject worldly riches, in Senegal a young wrestler is hoping rituals can bring him wealth. The ancient tradition of wrestling has become the country’s biggest sport, with champions earning £100,000 in a single bout. Fighters still use rituals, amulets and potions to give them the edge in the arena. Tribal dances, prayers written in the sand, and magic call on their ancestors for courage and support. George Sarr is hoping to win a local tournament for the chance to fight in the big league in the capital, Dakar, and to raise his family from poverty. Around the world many customs are coming under threat from globalisation, and as they embrace some elements of modern life communities are choosing what to hold on to. In Greenland, some Inuit people are trying to protect their traditions in the face of social change and now also against the threat of global warming. In this harsh landscape communities have only been able to survive by hunting, and traditionally boys go on a rite of passage to hunt their first seal on the sea ice. Rifles have long since replaced harpoons, but in an attempt to preserve tradition, skidoos have been banned for hunting. 11-year-old football fan Danny embarks on his first solo hunt – he must learn to control a dog sled, stalk a seal and make a kill.