From sky burials to infant dropping, these strange rituals may shock you.
Throughout the world, many countries have long been known for their strange rituals and traditions. Whether it’s simply a peculiar marriage custom or a bizarre funeral rite, cultural rituals vary widely from place to place. Assembled below are some of the most bizarre traditions and rituals from around the world.
1. Sky Burials, or Celestial Funerals (Tibet)
Though “sky burial” may sound like some form of elaborate ceremony involving a helicopter or plane, it’s actually a practice involving the exposure of a corpse to natural elements (typically in an elevated location on a picturesque mountainside) until the corpse has been eaten by vultures and condors. Referred to as jhator (“giving alms to the birds’), the custom stems from Vajrayana Buddhism, which teaches the transmigration of spirits. According to jhator, because life is inherently connected to nature, bodies are returned to their natural environment in order to nourish other living beings. The vultures and condors are perceived as sacred animals, responsible for transporting the spirit of the dead person to heaven to await reincarnation. The process, extremely common in Tibetan culture, is fairly elaborate and involves a number of specific steps. After a Tibetan dies, the corpse is wrapped in white cloth. During the next few days, Lamaist monks (called lamas) are summoned to pray over the body, reading scriptures aloud in hopes that the person’s soul will be released from purgatory and eventually ascend to heaven. Once this process is complete, the body is placed on a celestial burial platform, and mourners remove the dead person’s clothing before breaking the spine and positioning the body in a fetal pose. After the corpse is transported to the burial site, “Su” smoke is burned to attract the “sacred birds.” During the process, lamas chant sutras for redemption from sins of the soul, until eventually the “holy birds” arrive and feast on the carcass. Remains left by the birds must be collected and burned. What’s particularly interesting is that strangers are forbidden from attending the ceremony or visiting the burial site (it’s commonly believed that the presence of strangers will impede the soul’s ascension to heaven). Popular burial sites include Drigung Til Monastery and Larung Gar Buddhist Academy (the world’s biggest Buddhist academy).
2. Baby-Dropping (India)
For the last 700 years babies have been tossed off roofs in the states of Karnataka and Maharashtra in India. Convinced that the dangerous ritual will ensure health and prosperity for their families, Hindu and Muslim parents stand amid the cheering crowds and hurl their screaming children from the roof of a shrine (in some cases, up to a distance of 50 feet) to waiting men, who catch them securely in stretched bedsheets before returning them to the loving arms of parents. Practiced now for almost a century, the ritual seems to have been prompted by extremely high infant mortality rates. According to legend, parents with ailing babies were advised by saints to demonstrate their trust in the divine by constructing a shrine and then dropping the infant from the roof. Rumors soon spread of a number of babies being miraculously cradled to safety in a hammock-like sheet that mysteriously appeared in midair. As you might expect, the stories convinced villagers of the ritual’s power, and many soon believed that tossing their baby as an offering would ensure health and prosperity. While some researchers have claimed that the dangerous practice was extremely common, Dr. Renate Söhen-Thieme, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, asserts that while “there is a possibility that some customs may have existed unnoticed and unrecorded amongst a locally restricted segment of society,” the ritual is “certainly not part of the classical Hindu tradition,” and it is not part of Muslim tradition either.
3. The Easter Whip (Czech Republic and Slovakia)
Dousing women with cold water and whipping them with willow sticks is a treasured Easter tradition in some parts of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In towns and villages (as part of a centuries-old spring tradition) girls spend the day before Easter decorating and painting hard-boiled Easter eggs (called kraslices in Czech) to present to boys the following day. While the girls are decorating eggs, boys are fashioning special braided whips called pomlázkas made of willow branches festooned with colored ribbons. On Easter morning boys drape themselves in elaborate costumes and head into the community, armed with buckets of ice water and Easter whips. While the costumed boys march through the village with their buckets and whips, girls wait anxiously inside their homes, hoping to be doused with water and whipped on their bottoms with Easter sticks. When a boy reaches a girl’s home, he requests a decorated egg. As a reward, the girl typically gives the boy a dyed hard-boiled egg (even awarding him with coins equivalent to a dime or a quarter) before tying a ribbon around the boy’s whip and inviting him in for a warm meal (as well as a shot of Czech herbal liquor known as Becherovka if he’s of age). The tradition symbolizes youth, and according to legend, girls who are beaten by a pomlázka will remain both beautiful and fertile in the coming year (the word pomlázka comes from the world pomladit or “to make younger” in English). Because it is believed that the freshness, youth and strength of the twigs pass on to the girls during the ritual, Czech girls wait for the boys eagerly, excited to be whipped in order to maintain their health and beauty during the next year. Surprisingly, many of the girls who aren’t included in the ritual are often mortified and offended.
4. The Turning of the Bones, or Famadihana (Madagascar)
In Madagascar, every several years famadihana ceremonies, known as “the turning of the bones,” occur throughout the region to celebrate the dead. During the ceremonies, coffins are pried open and the body of a person’s dead ancestor is brought out. The old garments are removed, the body is wrapped in fresh silk shrouds and sprayed with wine or perfume, and participants dance with the corpses before reburying them. Several years later (sometimes seven, sometimes two), the bodies of their ancestors will again be taken from their tombs. The same process will follow, and once again the bodies will be returned, the crypt closed, only to be reopened several years later. Why remove your dead ancestors from a tomb and dance with their dead bodies every few years, you ask? It’s all based on the Malagasy belief that their ancestor’s spirit will reach the afterlife faster if the body decomposes more quickly. “The dead do not move on to the next life immediately and in fact remain in the land of the living until their bodies have completely decomposed,” explains anthropologist Dr. Miora Mamphionona. Interestingly, though, while the primary purpose of the ceremony is to celebrate the dead, it also acts as an important social and educational event. During the ceremony, music plays, families share food, and elders explain to their children the importance of the dead. The Malagasy believe humans are created from the bodies of their ancestors, and they often use the famadihana ceremonies as opportunities to educate children about the generational bond of their families.