Unusual Religious Rituals Around the World

Every religion and culture has what outsiders consider odd traditions or rites of passage, but which seem perfectly acceptable to true believers. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have ceremonies and practices that mark life’s milestones: birth, marriage, the transition to adulthood, and death, many of which may sound unusual to non-practitioners. Rituals include simulating the eating of flesh and the drinking of blood (Communion), performing surgical procedures on infants and children (Bris, Khitān) or attempting to restore sight and hearing solely by touch (Faith Healing). Throughout the world, devotees adhere to practices that strike others as bizarre, but seem completely reasonable to the faithful.

Piercing your body with thick hooks as a sign of devotion, tossing a baby from 50 feet above to make him healthier, and having your car blessed with holy water and flowers sound like strange religious customs to many people, but who is to say they are any more strange than the rituals associated with religions  more familiar to those in the Western world? From rites of passage into manhood to rituals thought to bring luck and prosperity, here is a look at some unusual religious rituals around the world.

Extreme body-piercing

During the celebration of the religious holiday Thaipusam, Hindus throughout the world declare their devotion to Lord Murugan by piercing various parts of their bodies. This may not sound unusual, except that the piercings are usually done with skewers, lances, large hooks or a small spear called a vel. Although the tradition of piercing started out relatively simply, as a small hole in the tongue created by the vel as a reminder to remain silent during meditation, it has evolved over the years to include all parts of the body, especially the back, chest and face. Some devotees go as far as attaching several large hooks to their backs, then pulling heavily loaded chariots down streets or up hills.

During the hugely popular three-day Thaipusam festival (which attracts more than a million people each in India and Singapore alone) each February, Tamil Hindus celebrate the birthday of Lord Murugan and his killing of the malevolent spirit Soorapadman with a spear. The lances can reach two meters long and are often attached to elaborate headgear or other decorative apparatus. The pierced devotees march in festival parades both to demonstrate their devotion and to have their wishes granted.

>> Find a flight to India and read more about the Thaipusam festival

Blessing of the vehicles

Although it may seem strange to North Americans to have their mode of transportation blessed by a priest, this ritual is practiced in many parts of the world. Priests perform a ceremony that ensures safety and luck by praying, chanting, sprinkling holy water, fanning perfumed smoke, drawing signs and symbols on the vehicle, and adorning it with flowers.

In Thailand, Buddhist priests regularly bless new cars, motorbikes and even new Thai Airways jets. In the Philippines, it is considered fortuitous to have a Catholic priest bless your jeep, car or motorcycle on Palm or Easter Sunday. Every week, at Copacabana near Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, owners decorate their cars, taxis, and buses with flower garlands, wreaths, and confetti, then line up for a ceremony called “La Bendicion de Movilidades” (The Blessing of the Vehicles). After the priests complete the mass blessings, owners and their families celebrate with champagne and fireworks. The United States is no exception, and several states (California, Rhode Island and New Jersey among others) hold large gatherings each year to bless motorcycles, riders and their friends to keep them safe and accident-free.

Baby-Tossing

For more than 700 years, at Grishneshwar Temple in western India’s Maharashtra state, parents have asked clerics to drop their infants from a 50-foot tower. The parents believe that the practice will make their children more intelligent, braver, luckier, and healthier. The children are generally between the ages of one and two and are dropped from the tower, where they free-fall into a sheet held by men below, then are quickly passed into the arms of their waiting parents.

Many Westerners and secular Indians who have witnessed the spectacle are horrified by this ceremony, but it is fairly common in rural parts of India and is practiced both by Muslims and Hindus. Although religious officials declare that no child has ever been injured in the ritual, state officials are currently working to ban the practice. Supporters of the ban state the trauma and danger to the children, who are understandably terrified and visibly shaken by the ordeal, but those opposed to the ban feel strongly that practitioners should be allowed religious freedom.

>> Learn more about culture and religion in India and read Travel in India:  A Healing Journey

Hanging wax body parts

Hanging from the walls and ceilings of a church in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil is a collection of wax or plastic arms, legs, livers, hearts, lungs, eyes, uteri, and other internal organs and miscellaneous body parts. The church, Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (Church of our Lord of Bonfim or the “Good End”), is the site of an annual religious ceremony and procession called the Festa do Bonfim (Feast of the Good End), when church goers dress in traditional clothing, attend the mass at the Church of Conceição da Praia in Salvador, then walk eight kilometers uphill to the Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim.

Upon arrival, they wash the steps and plaza in front of the church, all the while singing and dancing. The event is hugely popular and draws thousands of people from all over the world. The church is believed to have curative properties, and in the Sala dos Milagres (Room of Miracles),  people hang wax or plastic representations of various body parts and photos of themselves or loved ones as either an offering to pray for divine intervention or thanks for curing a particular ailment. Seeing all those body parts hanging from the ceiling can be a tad jarring to the uninitiated, but they are left in a spirit of hope and gratitude.

>> Look for airfare to Salvador de Bahia and find hostels in Brazil

Shinto naked festival

Since 767 AD, every year across Japan, over 9,000 men participate in the annual Shinto Naked Festival, also known as Hadaka Matsuri. A highlight of the festival is the Shio-fumi ritual in which heavy Shinto shrines are carried by dozens of semi-naked men dressed in loin cloths (fundoshi) through the streets of their town. One man is chosen as the Shin-otokoa, or Naked Man, who must shave all body hair and run through the streets unclothed while being pursued by thousands of male festival goers trying to touch him for good luck and prosperity. Although it is a high honor to be named Naked Man, it can also be extremely dangerous, as devotees overcome with excitement, emotion, and copious amounts of sake have been known to shove, kick, and seriously injure the chosen one in the competitive scramble to touch him.

In general, the participants are men, but in recent years, women have also participated. The festival is popular both with Japanese and foreign tourists, and individual towns often host family activities as well as the the traditional macho entertainment: food stalls, games, and kiosks that sell festival souvenirs are the most popular.

>> Find a flight to Japan and read 10 Reasons the World Would be a Better Place if Japan Ruled the Earth

Day of the Dead

As Americans and Canadians celebrate Halloween, Mexicans prepare to honor their dead on All Souls’ Day by celebrating Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Families spend months ahead of time making cookies, candies, and cakes in the shapes of skeletons, skulls, internal organs, coffins, crosses, altars, and flowers and gathering appropriate items to take to the cemetery on the night of the celebration. Whole families visit the graves of their loved ones to clean and maintain the gravesites, place candles, flowers, and gifts around the tombstones and to celebrate the memory of their ancestors. The families gather for an all-night party in the cemeteries, bringing the favorite food and drink of the deceased, photos and other mementos, as well as flowers and decorations.

Gifts for the dead may include toys (for children who have passed away), bottles of alcohol, food, pillows, blankets (so that the dead may rest comfortably), marigolds, or items such as CDs of the deceased’s favorite music. Family members tell humorous stories, sing songs, drink, eat, and celebrate both life and death. The idea is both to appreciate the cycle of life and to entice the spirits of the dearly departed back to earth for a night in order to hear the prayers and grant the wishes of the living.

>> See photos of the Day of the Dead and read Why You Should Ignore All the Urban Legends & Take The Kids to Mexico

Venomous ant-filled gloves

Rituals that mark the transition from boyhood to manhood exist all around the world. In the Amazon, male teenagers must enter adulthood by plunging their hands into gloves filled with hundreds of venomous ants. Bullet ants, the largest ant on the planet and with one of the most painful bites, said to be 30 times more painful than a wasp sting, are woven into the ritual gloves and used as part of the initiation ceremony for the region’s youth. The Brazilian indigenous tribe, the Satere-Mawe, believe that experiencing this intense level of pain and suffering will make young men braver, tougher, and better warriors, and that the ritual will protect them from disease.

The boys are expected to keep the gloves on for ten minutes, letting the ants attack their hands. The initial bites are painful enough, but that is only the beginning of the ordeal. When the neurotoxins from the ants kick in, participants suffer symptoms that can last for hours or even days, ranging from gradually intensifying pain, paralysis, fever, hallucinations, shaking, convulsions, and loss of muscle control. Those who endure the torment become men.

>> Find adventure tours in the Amazon

Channeling the gods

In the highly secretive religion of Santeria, a mix of African, European, and indigenous American beliefs, very little is known of the ceremonies or rituals, except for one: the channeling of gods known as Orisha. In Caribbean countries such as Venezuela, those worshiping the Santeria saint, Maria Lonza, regularly host sessions for communicating with the religion’s pantheon of gods and goddesses. Every year, on October 12th, followers come together at magical Sorte Mountain, Maria’s legendary home, to worship her and commune with her fellow gods.

Channeling teams consist of one materia (the person who will become possessed) and one bonco (the interpreter of the gods’ messages) who work together to give various gods corporeal presence for the night’s celebrations. Once possessed and in a spiritual trance, materias may engage in a range of activities, from dancing over coals (baile en candela), lighting incense and candles, drinking alcohol, smoking cigars, sacrificing chickens, screaming out in religious fervor, spitting, cursing, drawing mysterious signs and symbols on the ground, adorning themselves with flowers, conveying cryptic messages, or stripping naked.

Further reading:

Photos by: Intrepid Flame, Phillie Casablanca, sowri, raichovak, WikiCommonsjohnwilliamsphd, WikiCommons, others by the author and may not be used without permission

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Leave a Comment

  • Boruch V. Hoffinger said at 2013-04-15T16:26:44+0000: Check out 'The 7 Noahide Laws' which all the world is required to follow. These are the oldest civilized laws known to mankind.
  • Terri Lynn Merritts said at 2012-09-14T21:22:34+0000: All religious mythologies- including Christian mythology- seem freaky to me. I mean, a bunch of adults who are allowed to work, drive, marry, etc running around talking to an imaginary male boss in the sky!
  • Backpacking Diplomacy said at 2012-10-26T23:54:45+0000: I had never heard of a few of those for sure. There are always some really different practices unique to us from all over the world. It seems that we have a tendency to look at past practices as strange. Perhaps, because we do not have a good context of their belief system. I wonder what they will think of us in the future?
  • George Kiplagat said at 2011-12-16T11:08:59+0000: Strange things happen.