Our World Respectful ritual in Madagascar

People head from the village to the tomb, accompanied by a band. Turning of the Bones. Andraiba. Village near  Antsirabe, Madagascar.
Picture: Stephen Scourfield The West Australian
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

Travel Club Tour members were in Madagascar to witness a ritual that unites the living with their ancestors and which only happens once every seven years.

To a blaze of trumpets and the rhythm of drums, members of the Aimee family carry their ancestors’ remains, wrapped tight and tied, above their heads through the dancing crowd.

They surge towards a big stone tomb’s opening, back up slightly, then surge closer and closer.

With a final rush of fond farewell, they pass the ancestor down through the entrance, and back into this realm of eternal, spiritual life.

They have temporarily reconnected.

This is a Turning of the Bones ceremony in Madagascar and it happens only one day every seven years. The auspicious day for this is set by the village witchdoctor, and locals call it famadihana.

And I am here with Diary Andrianampoina, tour leader and guide, who has arranged a rare invitation for our Travel Club Tours group, which we’ve run in conjunction with Travel Directors, to attend.

Not only attend, actually ... but be welcomed, included and embraced by the Aimee family.

Diary has been my friend since 2011, so being here feels personal. The 18 people in our group — well, we’re a family of sorts already, too. And now we’re here with the Aimees at the village of Andriaba near Antsirabe, for this ceremony and celebration. Members of our group are dancing in the dust and are asked to help carry ancestors’ remains back to the tomb.

Some of the travellers with me were, well, apprehensive about attending. But by the end of the day, they seem nearly as jubilant as the villagers.

The people of  Madagascar blend their animist beliefs with Roman Catholic Christianity, but they fundamentally believe that our life on earth is temporary and the long-term life is spiritual. Or, as Diary (pronounced dee-ah-ree) puts it — our life on Earth is a bridge to be passed over to the real life.

The remains of ancestors when they “become seriously ill” (the Malagasy colloquial term for death) are bound, usually in silk, which is so often the conduit between this physical life and the spiritual life, and placed in a stone tomb.

Traditionally, houses are built using wood, which is associated with living. Tombs are built of rock, which is identified with death.

During the Turning of the Bones, bodies are disinterred from their family tomb, hoisted on to shoulders, danced with, rewrapped in silk and taken back to the tomb to rest.

The Turning of the Bones touches the cultural roots of world’s oldest island, where the 18 tribes share animist beliefs in the soul of objects, animals and plants.

The decrees of witchdoctors are fundamental to everyday life.

In all this there are echoes of the animism in Toraja Land, Sulawesi, brought by Makassar sailors only about 2000 years ago. For while Madagascar has been geographically isolated for maybe 65 million years, since breaking off India, humans are only recently established here.

Despite lying less than 480km from continental Africa, it is believed the first people to settle on the island were Austronesians from perhaps 6000km east, not Africans.

Archaeologists recently revealed that they had found the remains of rice and beans these sailors and settlers had brought with them, along with belief.

Tombs are usually on the top of hills — above the houses, between the living people and the God Creator, Diary explains.

“Life after death is their real life and the ancestors’ spirits stay with the living,” he says.

“To know when to do the turning of the bones, we have to ask a witchdoctor. He must be there to open the tomb and put the body back. When the body is taken from the tomb, we put it on our shoulders and make it dance with us.”

Bodies are brought out of the tombs in mats, laid on the floor. There are tears and there is joy.

They are rewrapped, given drops of a drink they liked — maybe local rum, maybe cola, dripped where the mouth is.

“Their spirit stays with the living,” Diary repeats. “This is why silk is so important to Malagasy people.” The butterfly can have the spirit of the dead, then there is the cocoon, and then the ancestor’s spirit is imbued into its silk.

For each body is tied in an additional sheet of silk — and in a particular way, around in bands but also up the centre of the body, to allow life to continue to flow. 

Ancestors must be cared for, as they can reward or punish the living, led by a supreme being called Zanahary (the creator) or Andriamanitra (the fragrant one).

Behind a row of adult legs, a little girl is trying to see through. 

One of the men feels something behind his knee, turns, picks her up and lifts her through, to be with her ancestors. 

Top picture: People head from the village to the tomb accompanied by a band. Picture: Stephen Scourfield

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