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Ghost Money – Currency of the Afterlife

If there is indeed such a thing as afterlife, the Chinese and Vietnamese might just be the richest people there. And that’s because their living relatives make sure they are well provided for – by throwing money into flames. Well, not real money. Only fake notes. This fake money is commonly known as ghost money, “Joss paper” and as ‘pinyin’ (literally ‘shade’ or ‘dark’ money) in Chinese. The ghost money, along with other papier-mâché items (usually expensive stuff) are burned as a part of Chinese tradition – on holidays to venerate the deceased, and also at funerals, to make sure that the spirits have plenty of good things in the afterlife.

Traditionally, Joss paper is made from coarse bamboo paper or rice paper. The Joss is cut into squares or rectangles and has a thin piece of square foil glued in the center. Sometimes, it is even endorsed with a traditional Chinese red ink seal depending on the particular region. The paper is generally of a white color (symbolizing mourning) and the foil is either silver or gold (representing wealth), hence the name, ghost money. The three types of ghost money are copper (for newly deceased spirits and spirits of the unknown), gold (for the deceased and the higher gods), and silver (for ancestral spirits and local deities). Sometimes Joss paper is completely gold, engraved with towers or ingots. The burning of joss paper is not done casually, but with a certain reverence, placed respectfully in a loose bundle. Some other customs involve folding each sheet in a specific manner before burning. The burning is mostly done in an earthenware pot or a chimney built specifically for this purpose.

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Black Gums Are Considered a Sign of Beauty in West Africa

I’ve read about people getting tattoos on the weirdest places of their bodies, but this one just beats them all. Never before have I heard of people getting their gums tattooed. Not in any particular design, but just a uniform black color. This is actually a popular practice among women in West African countries like Senegal, because over there apparently, black gums are a thing of beauty.

Tattooed black gums are especially popular in small towns and villages like Thies, in Senegal. Women here practice this ancient tradition to get a smile that is considered more attractive. Of course, the process is nothing short of painful. Marieme, from Thies, is one such young girl to have gone through the procedure. I watched a documentary on YouTube that covered her journey from having regular gums to the more desirable black variety. Before she went for it, she said, “I want black gums to obtain a more beautiful smile. It’s become an obsession. I do fear the procedure. But I’ll be OK.”

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Women Living As Men – The Sworn Virgins of Albania

Earlier this year, we posted about Bacha Posh, the little cross-dressing girls of Afghanistan who spend their childhood dressing and living as boys. But there are places in this world where women swap genders for an entire lifetime. Albania is one such place, where sworn virgins exist in accordance with their familial code of ethics called Kanun, of Leke Dukagjini.

According to the non-religious Kanun tradition, families in some parts of Albania must be both patrilineal and patrilocal. This means the family wealth is always inherited by the men, and a woman moves into her husband’s home after marriage. Marriages are arranged at a very young age, if not at birth, and once deemed eligible to marry, the woman must become a part of her husband’s family. The role of a woman is severely circumscribed, reduced to taking care of the children and maintaining a home. A woman’s life is considered to be worth only half of that of a man. For the followers of the Kanun tradition, dress is an important marker to distinguish between genders. The men wear trousers, close-fitting caps and wrist watches, while women are dressed in skirts, headscarves, aprons and sometimes even veils. That actually doesn’t sound too odd, does it? But here’s the twist – a woman can choose to become a man in a Kanun society, by simply dressing like one. So an Albanian woman who dresses like a man, is a man. A change in dress is all that’s needed for a change in gender. Born out of a social necessity, women who become men in Albania are called Virgjinesha (the sworn virgins).

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In Thailand People Change Their Names to Improve Their Fortunes

You might have heard of people changing their names because they didn’t like the ones their parents gave them. Or in an attempt to change their identity and escape their past. But in Thailand, name changes are common for a different reason altogether – to bring good luck.

A case-in-point is 46-year-old Baramee Thammabandan, formerly known as Teerapol Lilitjirawat. While neither name strikes us as charismatic, the change has made a world of difference to Mr. Baramee. About 10 years ago, he had suffered a major misfortune, when his garments business had failed. His eyesight became poor, he couldn’t manage his affairs and to make matters worse, his wife left him. And so he did what is natural to the people of Thailand – he changed his name. “I wanted to become a new person,”  the now clean shaven and slim Baramee says. Ironically, his new name does mean ‘charisma’.

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Strange Wedding Customs – The Crying Ritual of the Tujia People

Throughout history, various cultures have had strange requirements of their women. But none perhaps as strange as the custom of crying before marriage, as followed in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province. According to the custom, it is mandatory for a bride to cry at her own wedding, whether she likes it or not.

The crying marriage ritual was at its peak during the early 17th century and remained so until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911. It is said to have originated during the Warring States Period (475 to 221 BC), when historical records reveal that the princess of the Zhao State was to be married into the Yan State. At the moment of the princess’ departure, her mother is said to have cried at her feet, asking her to return home as soon as possible. This is said to be the first crying marriage ever. Although the custom is not as popular now as it used to be, there are still a large number of families that practice it with gusto. In fact, it is a necessary procedure for marriage among the Tujia people, in China’s Sichuan Province. The ritual itself is pretty simple – the bride has got to shed tears. If she doesn’t or is unable to, her neighbors will look down upon her as one of poor breeding. Worse still, she could even become the laughing stock of her village. In one extreme case, the bride was beaten by her mother for not crying at the wedding. Perhaps the girl was too happy to be free from her mother?

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Indian Men Get Trampled by Cattle in Traditional Ritual

In villages around the Ujain region, in India’s central state of Madhya Pradesh, men lay down on the ground and have their cattle trample all over them, as part of a bizarre centuries-old ritual.

There are a many things people will do in order to have their prayers answered by their gods, but until today, I didn’t know getting trampled by cattle was one of them. In a weird example of blind faith, dozens of villagers from Bhidawad village and neighboring settlements decorate their cattle with colours and henna in different patterns, then lay down on the ground and get trampled by the confused animals. The ritual takes place on the occasion of Ekadashi, a day after Diwali, the popular Hindu festival of lights, which was celebrated around the world on November 13. The whole village gathers in the streets to witness the painful event that they believe will make Hindu gods answer their prayers. “This is a traditional festival observed during Ekadashi fast after which the entire village’s cows are made to run over men lying on the ground, ” local Rekha Dubey told reporters. “We worship the cows before the ritual and also fast for five days and sing hymns during the festival.”

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Indonesian Villages Use Piles of Sand Instead of Mattresses

The residents of three small fishing villages in the Batang region of Indonesia prefer to sleep on piles of sand than on modern mattresses. This ancient tradition that’s still practiced today for its supposed health benefits.

Taking a nap on a sandy beach is pretty relaxing, but can you imagine going to sleep on a pile of sand every night? For the people of Batang-Batang, there’s really no comparing mattresses to their amazing sand beaches. As the only thing they have in abundance, sand plays a crucial role in the life of these coastal communities. It’s everywhere around their homes, cooling their feet on hot summer days, and keeping them warm during the night, and it even enters their houses as comfortable beds. Even the richest of residents prefer sleeping on sand than on mattresses, and even if some own conventional beds, they are mostly for decorative purposes. The villagers, most of them fishermen, believe the sand brought in from nearby beaches has medicinal properties that can help with a variety of conditions, from rheumatism to itches, although there’s no scientific proof of this. However, it’s a known fact that the sand in the area is highly adaptive to air temperature. When the air is hot, the sand offers a nice cooling retreat, and on cold nights, it keeps the villagers warm.

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Dung Spitting Competition Will Leave a Bad Taste in Your Mouth

Kudu Dung Spitting is an African sport popular enough to have its own official competition, in which contestants have to put a kudu dung pellet in their mouth and spit it as far as possible.

Some people use dung to make coffee taste better, but in some parts of Africa it’s used to fuel a weird pastime called Bokdrol Spoek. Roughly translated as “spitting buck droppings  this quirky tradition has people putting dung pellets in their mouth and spitting them as far as they can. The origins of kudu dung spitting can be traced back to tribal hunters who had difficulties catching the fast antelope. Most times the only sign of the animal was a trail of dung, which meant it had been there but it was long gone. Apart from swearing at the elusive kudus, hunters would engage in a contest of pellet spitting, to pass the time. In countries like South Africa, the disgusting custom is so popular that there’s even a championship held every year to find out who can spit a piece of antelope poop the farthest.

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Strange Wedding Tradition Forbids Newlyweds to Use the Bathroom for Three Days and Nights

Weddings in the Indonesian Tidong community have traditions that are truly unique. Perhaps the most adorable of their customs is the one where the groom isn’t allowed to see the bride’s face until he sings her several love songs. The curtain separating the couple is raised only after the musical requirement is met, and then they can see each other on a dais. But then again, not all the Tidong wedding rituals are this sweet. The bride isn’t allowed to leave the confines of her home during the engagement period, and a groom who arrives late to the wedding needs to pay a fine (usually jewelry). But the weirdest of them all is this – the bride and the groom aren’t allowed to use the bathroom for three days after the wedding.

It sounds a lot like the newlywed couple are being punished for an unknown reason. How else would you explain being prohibited from leaving the house, clearing bowels or urinating for three whole days? For those of us who couldn’t go even a couple of hours without using the restroom, this sure does seem like a torturous way to be welcomed into married life. But the custom is very normal and natural for the people of the Tidong tribe, who now inhabit the city of Sandakan, in Sabah, Malaysia. They believe that not practicing the three-day and night ritual would bring terrible luck to the couple – a broken marriage, infidelity, or death of their children at a young age. So the couple is watched over by several people, and allowed only minimal amounts of food and drink. After the three days are up, they are bathed and then permitted to return to normal life.

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Controversial Cinnamon Challenge Becomes Internet Hit

It’s things like the Cinnamon Challenge that strengthen my belief that people will do the dumbest things if they think it’s cool. Because who in their right mind would want to stuff their face with a tablespoon full of cinnamon just for fun? The answer – thousands. And would you believe the Governor of Illinois is one of them? Yep, Gov. Pat Quinn took in a spoonful of that stuff on air, in response to a challenge. He followed his act with the words, “The will of the people. The law of the land.” I don’t know about you, but I’d think twice before giving him my vote. Right now, there are over 30,000 videos on YouTube tagged ‘Cinnamon Challenge’. The most popular ones have millions of views.

The Cinnamon Challenge is basically a dare to swallow a spoonful of cinnamon in powdered form, without water. It’s the latest rage and it has gone beyond viral. The challenge itself has been around for years, but the sudden spike in its popularity remains unexplained. It seems like a simple thing to do; just swallow the stuff and be done with it. In reality, however, it isn’t all that easy. The problem with cinnamon is that it does not break down easily. So the chances of it getting stuck in the throat are pretty high, causing gagging and even vomiting. Doctors have said that this could be very dangerous, because cinnamon can also prevent air from entering the lungs, which could lead to lung inflammation.

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Indian Man Bathes with Boiling Milk Once a Year

India is a land of ancient culture, with practices that date back thousands of years. It is hard to trace the origins of any particular ritual, let alone remember the significance behind them. With no logical explanation available, several Indian practices seem superstitious and sometimes even a tad foolish. However, this does not deter the people of India from participating in religious and cultural celebrations with gusto.

One such example is the festival of the nine evenings, Navaratri (Nava=9, Ratri=Evening), celebrated every year in the month of October. Dedicated to different versions of the Goddess, all 9 days are filled with festivities, good food, music, dance and religious ceremonies across the country. Living in India, watching the Navaratri for me is a part of normal life. But then I heard about this man who is certainly unusual, even for Indian standards. Every year, during Navaratri, he bathes with pots of boiling milk. And he comes out of the experience, unscathed.

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Bacha Posh – The Cross-Dressing Girls of Afghanistan

Cross-dressing in most societies is something that most people aren’t comfortable with. But then there are places where the practice is accepted as a way for families to raise their social standing. One such place is Afghanistan, where women live such highly restricted lives that they resort to dressing like men. The cross-dressing is mainly reserved for little girls, whose parents dress them up like boys before sending them out into the world. They are called bacha posh (“dressed like a boy”).

‘Bacha posh’ is the name given to girls who don a boy’s costume. So a family could have daughters, sons and also bacha poshes. A bacha posh is accepted and enjoys all the freedom of a real boyin Afghan society. They have the right to go to school, to travel, to play sports and even to get a job. Inside the home and outside, the bacha posh would be treated like any other male would, even while being referred to in the third person. Among a group of boys, many would not even be aware of the presence of a bacha posh. Should the true gender of the child be discovered somehow, it would be ignored and the pretence would continue as before. Parents who have no sons prefer to convert one of their daughters into a bacha posh to raise their social standing. In a society where having a male child is of utmost importance and a matter of pride, bacha poshes fill in the son’s shoes perfectly.

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The Creepy Walking Dead of Tana Toraja

If you thought that zombies were only a figment of the imagination of storytellers, well, prepare to have your mind blown. If the rituals of the villagers of Toraja, Indonesia, are to be believed, almost every person who dies can turn into a zombie. Apparently, certain people of the village had and still have the ability to make dead people walk. And I don’t mean that metaphorically.

Reading about the funeral rituals of Toraja, I’ve come to realize that there are two separate theories on how the ‘walking dead’ evolved. According to one, in the ancient past, it was believed that a dead man must be buried in his village of origin, and not at the place of his death. Since villages then were far apart and extremely isolated, it was difficult for family members to carry the corpse through long distances. The help of people who could make the dead walk was sought, and the dead man would be able to walk back to the village where he was born. Kind of like a mobile service for the dead, I suppose. So in those days, it was not uncommon to find a stiff, expressionless corpse, walking straight ahead. And it is said that if anyone addressed the corpse directly, it would simply collapse, unable to continue the journey. Imagine the horror! Read More »

Vrindavan – Where India’s Widows Go to Die

Superstitious beliefs are generally perceived in light humor, like when a black cat crosses your path, or you look into a broken mirror. But what about the ones that could cause several women to live in poverty and destitution for the rest of their lives? Unfortunately, that’s the ugly side of superstition and it does exist in several rural, underdeveloped societies of India. Societies, where it is normal to believe that apart from being a financial burden, widowed women and even their shadows, bring bad luck. Within such circles, widows – both young and old – are shunned and forced to leave their home. Their bangles are broken, red vermilion (the mark of a married woman) is wiped away from the forehead, and they’re forced to wear nothing but white saris, before being turned away from home. Thousands of these homeless widows gather at one place, Vrindavan, where it is believed that death will bring them salvation. So they go there to live in ashrams, awaiting their turn to die.

Unfortunately, life in the ashrams of the holy city of Vrindavan is not exactly a bed of roses for the lonely and abandoned women. In fact, some of them are so poor that they have even left the ashrams and taken to the streets to beg for their food. The north-Indian city, with a population of about 55,000, is believed to have about 20,000 widows today. The ones who do stay on in the ashrams receive only one small plate of food a day, and live in the poorest of conditions. Young widows face a threat to their safety as well, due to sexual abuse and human trafficking.

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The Flying Men of Bolivia’s Yungas Valley

It truly amazes me how people are able to find great shortcuts in any kind of situation. A while ago, we wrote about Bamboo Drifting , which was a means to cross rivers in China by balancing on a thin bamboo pole. Deep valleys exist in the jungles of Bolivia too, but the locals have chosen flying over rowing, and it’s much faster. On foot, the journey would take a good 1 hour, as they’d have to walk down to the bottom, cross the river and climb up the other side. But 30 seconds is all it takes for the people of Yungas Valley to fly across.

No, they haven’t mysteriously sprouted wings, nor do they use any fancy machines. Their flying equipment is simple – 20 ropes strung across the valley with old rusting pulleys, 200 meters above the river and stretching as long as 400 meters. Several of the local cocoa harvesters, the Cocaleros, use the ropes every day to travel to and fro along with their goods. They tie themselves to the pulleys using strips of fabric, and glide across effortlessly. Branches and leaves are used as brakes to stop themselves so they don’t end up crashing into the other side.

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