One of the greatest wonders, and indeed pleasures, of this world is the diversity that exists among men. There is great beauty in the extreme variation one finds when it comes to culture, religious leaning, tradition and societal behaviour. So in celebration of what makes us different, here is a compilation of some lesser-known rituals in religions that continue to be mainstream in various societies around the world.
Judaism: Kaparot - The Swinging Chicken
Every year, in the 10-day period between Rosh Hashanah, (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur, (Day of Atonement), some followers of the Jewish faith will swing a live cockerel or hen depending on their gender, three times over their heads, while speaking the words: “This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement. The cock or hen shall meet death, but I shall enjoy a long, pleasant life of peace." The chicken symbolically takes on the person’s burden of guilt for the sins committed during the year, and is then slaughtered and either cooked and eaten by the person performing the ritual, or offered as food to the poor. This practice is performed in order to express the urgency in seeking divine absolution for sins committed in the previous year.
Because it has become somewhat controversial in modern times due to the potential mistreatment of the animals before the ritual, the chicken is frequently replaced by money placed in a cloth, which is then donated.
Jainism: Digambar (Digambara) - Naked Monks
It’s not every day that one sees a holy man dressed in the metaphorical Emperor’s New Clothes but this is a common sight amongst the holy men who subscribe to a branch of Jainism, called Digambar or Digambara. Meaning “skyclad” in Sanskrit, Digambara monks are required to take 28 vows, one of which is nudity, or digambar, as they consider clothing a possession that can lead to an attachment to the material. Another vow of non-violence sees the sky-clad monks carry brushes made of fallen peacock feathers with them at all times, and they sweep any tiny creatures such as ants out of their path, so that they don’t kill them in error. Nudity also removes the potential of crushing small insects that are found in dirty clothing. Digambara Mothers, the female counterpart of the monks, are the only exception to the nudist rule, as their nakedness would be considered to cause "social disruption." The women, therefore, wear white saris.
Hinduism: Thaipusam- Body Mortification
During a Hindu festival called Thaipusam, celebrated in January or February each year by Tamil communities around the world, devotees take part in body mortification. That means hooks are placed through the skin and spears through the cheeks, skin and tongue. Thaipusam commemorates when Parvati, the Hindu goddess of love, fertility and devotion gave Murugan, the Hindu God of War, a vel (a kind of spear), which allowed him to vanquish an evil demon by the name of Soorapadman. During the festival, worshippers shave their heads and attend a day-long pilgrimage, all the while carrying various “burdens” — which range from pots of milk, to the aforementioned spear through the cheeks and other variations of skin hooking and piercing.
In the ritual of the piercing, worshippers will be blessed and have their flesh pierced by a priest, either by a single long spike through both cheeks, or hook-ended ropes connected to chariots penetrating the flesh on the worshipper’s backs and arms. At insertion, it is believed the pilgrims are entranced, having meditated for 21 days up until the festival so the pain does not affect them.
Vajrayana Buddhism: ByaGtor - Sky Burials
In Tibet, a highly respectful form of burial is done in the sky. Family members transport their loved one’s remains to the mountains at night, sometimes cutting the body up so as to disperse it as widely as possible. The body is then placed on a stone structure called a Dakhma and left to the elements where the weather, insects and carrion birds, such as vultures, can have their way.
Sky burials are in alignment with the Vajrayana Buddhist belief in transmigration of the spirit. They believe the body is nothing more than a vessel for the spirit, and so what could seem to be a brutal way of handling the dead is actually an act of generosity in Vajrayana communities. Your loved one’s body is being used to feed other living things, thus perpetuating the cycle of life.
Christianity: El Salto del Colacho – The Jump of the Devil
El Salto del Colacho is an annual Spanish holiday that celebrates the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi. During this festival, babies born in the year just past are laid on a mattress in the street as young girls shower them with rose petals and a priest blesses them. Once blessed, the babies are placed upon a mattress and a man dressed in red and yellow representing the Devil – el Colacho – jumps over them. Although its origins are unknown, the practice is done for similar reasons as the more traditionally practiced baptism, in that it is understood to cleanse the babies of original sin, along with ensuring them safety from illness and evil spirits and a safe passage through life.
The world of religion and culture is steeped in folklore, human history and tradition spanning hundreds of years. Understandably from their origins that are based in much more primitive times, these practices can seem outlandish at best. However, they are an integral part of the human history we have woven for centuries and continue to weave, that connects us.