Five awe-inspiring religious ceremonies

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 12.03.2019

Catching a religious event or gathering in another country can be an exhilerating experience. Here, from the pages of Make The Most Of Your Time On Earth, we present five spectacular declarations of faith from all over the globe.

Easter in Seville, Spain

Easter procession, Sevilla, Spain © Shutterstock

© Jan Durkaj/Shutterstock

"Semana Santa” (or Holy Week) is the most spectacular of all the Catholic celebrations, and Seville carries it off with an unrivalled pomp and ceremony. Conceived as an extravagant antidote to Protestant asceticism, the festivities were designed to steep the common man in Christ’s Passion, and it’s the same today – the dazzling climax to months of preparation.

You don’t need to be a Christian to appreciate the outlandish spectacle or the exquisitely choreographed attention to detail. Granted, if you’re not expecting it, the sight of massed hooded penitents can be disorientating and not a little disturbing – rows of eyes opaque with concentration, feet stepping slavishly in time with brass and percussion. But Holy Week is also about the pasos, or floats, elaborate slow-motion platforms graced with piercing, tottering images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, swathed in Sevillano finery.

All across Seville, crowds hold their collective breath as they anticipate the moment when their local church doors are thrown back and the paso commences its unsteady journey, the costaleros (or bearers) sweating underneath, hidden from view. With almost sixty cofradías, or brotherhoods, all mounting their own processions between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, the city assumes the guise of a sacred snakes-and-ladders board, criss-crossed by caped, candlelit columns at all hours of the day and night. The processions all converge on Calle Sierpes, the commercial thoroughfare jammed with families who’ve paid for a front-seat view. From here they proceed to the cathedral, where on Good Friday morning the whole thing reaches an ecstatic climax with the appearance of “La Macarena”, the protector of Seville’s bullfighters long before she graced the pop charts.

The official programme is available from news-tands in Seville; local newspapers also print timetables and maps.

Morning prayers at Diskit Monastery, India

To join in morning puja (prayers) in a Ladakhi Buddhist monastery, high in the Himalayas, is to enter frozen time. It’s cold outside, even though the sun has hit the Nubra Valley floor. Long, cool shadows fall over yawning monks and novices flagged in plum-coloured robes. Incense is lit and syncopated chanting, more football terrace than enlightened warbling, begins. Breakfast – butter tea dispensed from a dented kettle and porridge from a galvanized bucket – momentarily interrupts the rhythmic mantra. The simple, moving chorus starts once more, but with puja over there’s a stampede past jewelled doors for a morning game of soccer.

Diskit is a 6hr bus journey from Leh, but there are only three buses a week (Tues, Thurs & Sat 6am).


© Zoltan Szabo Photography/Shutterstock

Circuiting the Jokhang, Tibet

The Jokhang is the holiest temple in Tibetan Buddhism, and what it lacks in appearance – a very shabby facade compared with the nearby Potala Palace – it makes up in atmosphere. Located in the cobbled lanes of the Barkhor district, Lhasa’s sole surviving traditional quarter, there’s an excited air of reverence as you approach, with a continuous throng of Tibetan pilgrims circuiting the complex anticlockwise, spinning hand-held prayer wheels and sticking out their tongues at each other in greeting. A good many prostrate themselves at every step, their knees and hands protected from the accumulated battering by wooden pads, which set up irregular clacking noises.

Devout they may be, but there’s absolutely nothing precious about their actions, no air of hushed, respectful reverence – stand still for a second and you’ll be knocked aside in the rush to get around. Inside, the various halls are lit by butter lamps, leaving much of the wooden halls rather gloomy and adding a spooky edge to the close-packed saintly statues clothed in multicoloured flags, brocade banners hanging from the ceiling, and especially gory murals of demons draped in skulls and peeling skin off sinners – a far less forgiving picture of Buddhism than the version practised elsewhere in China. The bustle is even more overwhelming here, the crowds increased by red-robed monks, busy topping up the lamps or tidying altars.

The Jokhang opens daily 8am–6pm. As with all Tibetan temples, circuit both the complex and individual halls anti clockwise.

Honouring the Orixás in Salvador, Brazil


© lazyllama/Shutterstock

Along the “Red Beach” of Salvador da Bahia, worshippers dressed in ethereal white robes gather around sand altars festooned with gardenias. Some may fall into trances, writhing on the beach, screaming so intensely you’d think they were being torn limb from limb. Perhaps in more familiar settings you’d be calling an ambulance, but this is Salvador, the epicentre of the syncretic, African-based religion known as candomblé, in which worshippers take part in toques, a ritual that involves becoming possessed by the spirit of their Orixá.

A composite of Portuguese Catholicism and African paganism, candomblé is most fervently practised in Salvador, but it defines the piquancy and raw sensuality of the Brazilian soul throughout the entire country. In this pagan religion, each person has an Orixá, or protector god, from birth. This Orixá personifies a natural force, such as fire or water, and is allied to an animal, colour, day of the week, food, music and dance. The ceremonies are performed on sacred ground called terreiros and typically feature animal sacrifices, hypnotic drumming, chanting and convulsing. Props and paraphernalia are themed accordingly; the house is decorated with the colour of the honorary Orixá, and usually the god’s favourite African dish is served.

Ceremonies are specialized for each god, but no matter which Orixá you are celebrating, you can be sure that the experience will rank among the most bizarre of your life.

Visitors are admitted to terreiros, with “mass” usually beginning in the early evening. For information on ceremonies in Salvador, contact the Federação Baiana de Culto Afro-Brasileiro, (+55 3326 6969).

Paying homage to the Queen of Heaven, Taiwan

First come the police cars and media vans, followed by flag-waving and drum-beating teams, along with musicians and performers dressed as legendary Chinese folk heroes, their faces painted red, black and blue, with fierce eyes and pointed teeth. Finally, carried by a special team of bearers, comes the ornate palanquin housing the sacred image of the Queen of Heaven. The whole thing looks as heavy as a small car: the men carrying the Queen are wet with perspiration, stripped down to T-shirts with towels wrapped around their necks.

Every year, tens of thousands of people participate in a 300km, eight-day pilgrimage between revered temples in the centre of Taiwan, in a tradition that goes back hundreds of years. The procession honours one of the most popular Taoist deities, a sort of patron saint of the island: the Queen of Heaven, Tianhou, also known as Mazu or Goddess of the Sea.

Becoming a pilgrim for the day provides an illuminating insight into Taiwanese culture. The streets are lined with locals paying respects and handing out free drinks and snacks, from peanuts to steaming meat buns. As well as a constant cacophony of music and drums, great heaps of firecrackers are set off every few metres. Whole boxes seem to disintegrate into clouds of smoke and everyone goes deaf and is dusted with ashy debris.

Check for details.


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Top image: Nazarenos Easter procession, Sevilla - Spain © Jan Durkaj/Shutterstock

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