When people think of the exotic island of Madagascar they may conjure up visions of aromatic vanilla growing wild in lush jungles, towering baobabs, or of bouncing, singing lemurs from the popular animated movie, but the enigmatic Malagasy culture remains somewhat of a mystery. For instance, did you know that burial and funerary traditions hold special significance to the local people, and there is a ceremony known as Famadihana where relatives rewrap the bones of family members who have passed on and perform a dance with them? There is far more to experience than what is commonly known about this unique land – here are a few surprising revelations waiting to be discovered.
First, let’s start with Famadihana. Ancestor worship is very important in Malagasy culture. Death is seen as a central part of life and deceased ancestors are held in high honour. Famadihana is a funerary tradition also known as “the turning of the bones” or dance with the dead. The deceased relative is removed from the family tomb and the body is wrapped in a new silk shroud, replacing the old one. The wrapped body is then carried up above the living relatives’ heads while dancing in a procession to the dead relative’s favourite music. This is done to honour the deceased and takes place roughly every 7 years. It is also a time when family members come from near and far to have a lovely reunion.
Fady is an important part of Malagasy culture, it is translated as taboo but can also mean that something is sacred and the concept covers certain customs and traditions, as well as moral guidelines. Azafady is the Malagasy word for “please” or “excuse me” and it means “may it not be fady to me”. Some fady applies all over Madagascar, such as never pointing at a grave, or pregnant women eating shouldn’t eat eels but some fady is village, tribe, or family-specific. Fady can pertain to animals such as never hunting a certain type of lemur because of folklore, or places such as sacred waterfalls in mountain reserves like Montagne d’Ambre that must be protected. Most fady have interesting stories behind them. Local guides are aware of fady and will explain them to guests, travellers should always be respectful of the fady.
Food and culture are very often intrinsically tied together, and in Madagascar vary (rice) features as a ubiquitous staple that has become an inherent part of Malagasy culture. No meal is complete without rice, starting from breakfast all the way through to dinner, it’s even drunk as rice water known as ranovola, in Malagasy ranovola means “valuable water”. People in Madagascar believe that you aren’t full from a meal unless you have eaten rice, and when you invite someone for dinner you invite them over to eat rice. Rice even features on the local currency, a woman selling rice is depicted on the 10,000 Ariary banknote.
Moraingy is a bare-fisted, weaponless traditional Madagascan martial art that is practised mostly in the coastal areas and has even spread to neighbouring islands like the Comoros and Reunion. It’s also known as Madagascan kickboxing and is an intense fight between two opponents who battle while traditional music blares in the background, this music serves to induce a trance-like state that gives the fighting a spiritual significance. Traditionally fights would take place on a Sunday after the first full moon of the month but these days you can experience the battles on most weekends or market days. Skills and techniques are passed down through generations and men who are Moraingy fighters are called fagnorolahy, recently women have started taking part too and they are known as fagnorovavy. Winners are widely respected and even feared.
Visitors to Madagascar can experience these customs and practices when travelling through the dynamic island that is home to over 26 million inhabitants. This population is made up of 18 ethnic groups, various tribes with distinct traditions, styles of dress and even appearances. One of the most well-known tribes are the Merina which is the largest and whose royalty used to rule from Antananarivo, some other tribes are the Mahafaly who are known for their woodcarving; the Antandroy, nomads who live in the Spiny Forest; Sakalava with their distinctive face painting; the Vezo who are nomadic fisherman and Bara who are polygamous cattle farmers. 50% of the country is Christian but most people combine this faith with their old traditions and legends. Malagasy people are known for their hospitality, a visitor is highly valued and treated with true warmth and generosity even when there may not be anything to give. Why not plan a trip and experience these fascinating facets for yourself?
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