Travelling the world you’ll come across rituals that might seem odd, crazy – perhaps even scary. But at the root they all share something in common; they are an expression of the local culture. So here we tell the story behind them five of these unique rituals…
Naghol, Pentecost Island, Vanuatu
The ritual of Naghol, or land diving, has become one of the strangest tourist attractions of the South Pacific and involves men leaping from crudely constructed towers of up to 100ft high, with only tree vines wrapped round their ankles as a safety measure. Perhaps no more strange than bungee jumping, though certainly a great deal more dangerous, this ritual is said to have originated when a woman, dissatisfied with her husband, pretended to jump to her death by tying vines to her ankles. Her grief-stricken husband, unaware of her trick, then leapt to his own death. Since then the men of Vanuatu have performed the ritual to prevent themselves from being tricked again. The diver’s goal is to bless the soil by skimming his head against the ground before being whipped back aloft – guaranteeing fertile soil for the yam harvest. Of course there is little margin for error, and for the boys who have been circumcised (at around seven or eight) the performance of the land diving ritual in the presence of elders marks passage into manhood. There has only ever been one recorded fatality, in 1974 during a performance for Queen Elizabeth II, when the vines were not elastic enough due to the ritual being held in the wrong season.
Anyone who’s been to Bali will remember the small offerings, Banten, which you see dotted in every doorway, restaurant, street, wall… These Banten are exquisitely decorated parcels of cut leaves and coloured rice, prepare by Balinese women with the daily meals, as offerings to their compatriot gods and demons, and ancestors. Banten offerings range from the spectacular – for example the festival of Galungan, in which the gods visit earth, will be celebrated with Banten woven from coconut fronds – to the simple – tiny canang, daily offerings of palm leaves and flowers to show hospitality to the spirits of the house. The continuity of this ritual is fundamentally important to Balinese life – and whether it holds the universe together or not, it certainly defines and celebrates a vibrant heritage.
Burning Man, Black Rock Desert, Nevada, USA
Burning Man is an “experiment in community, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance”. For an event with such primal overtones – it culminates in the burning of a huge wooden effigy – it’s a good deal younger than we might assume. In fact it began in 1986, and by 2010 had drawn over 50,000 visitors or “burners”. What the whole ritual signifies is open to considerable debate, but cash is virtually banned from the event, self-expression is encouraged in as many ways as possible, and the “leave no trace” principle is fundamental to the whole project – the desert space is to be left better than it was before the burners’ arrival, certainly not worse. Over the years other aspects of the event have evolved including the celebration of weird and wonderful vehicles and the burning of a separate temple. This remains one of the most eagerly celebrated of modern rituals, though the increasing prevalence of “Burning Man Is Stupid” t-shirts around the west coast may be the real indicator that the burning man has reached the national consciousness!
Prayer at the Western Wall, Jerusalem
Perched on the spiritual fault line of all three of the world’s major monotheistic religions, Jerusalem has changed hands dozens of times over the centuries. The Western Wall involved in this ritual, also known as the “wailing” wall, is the last remaining piece of the temple destroyed by the Romans in 70CE and has been a site of pilgrimage since then. Despite often tumultuous disagreements as to the meaning and significance of the space, today visitors of all religions are permitted to approach the wall for prayer. The faithful write requests or prayers on scraps of paper, sometimes carrying them thousands of miles to the wall, before placing them in cracks between the ancient stones, as part of the pilgrimage ritual. If that’s a little too far to travel for you, you can have a prayer printed out and placed in the wall through the comfort of the internet – though no doubt this lacks in experience what it makes up in convenience!
Changing of the guard, worldwide
Though you may think of the changing of the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace as a fundamentally English ritual, Denmark’s King’s Watch and Norway’s King’s Guard have similar daily displays. In the US the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near Washington DC has been guarded since 1937 by a single soldier of the 3rd US Infantry Regiment – a guard changed with painstaking dedication every half hour during daylight. Singapore, too, has its Silent Precision Drill Squad – their changing guard before the President’s House is only observable on the first Sunday of every month, perhaps due to the sheer number of troops involved! In fact, most nations have some viewable ritual ceremony requiring similar precision and discipline; as a public display of their troops’ strength. Although we’re not sure that the Singapore squad’s choice of Earth Wind & Fire’s September makes for a particularly intimidating anthem…