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TataSteel Literary Meet, Bhubaneswar in January 2018. Moderating a session on Sita –
L to R with Samhita Arni, Volga & Anita Ratnam.

Published on July 20, 2016 Diplomatic

The Spirits of the Dead and the
Turning of the Bones

Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world and is home to some of the most unusual and most endangered flora and fauna. Where else can you find over fifty kinds of large-eyed monkey-like creatures, with long furry tails called lemurs (Lemur: a Roman word meaning ‘spirit of the dead’) or stroll along with giant tortoises? Even dream of the dinosaur eggs down in ocean below?

Just off the east coast Africa, Madagascar was uninhabited until two thousand years ago. It has always been in the cross-current of international trade. The first settlers came from Indonesia and

The social history of a place is found in its origin of words. In the African context, its culture is somewhat isolated and vocabulary links are few. The words for pottery, ironwork and basketry are of Indonesian origin while those for animals, birds and chicken are African derivatives. Mervyn Brown, a former British Ambassador to Madagascar , 1967- 1970 and the author of the History of Madagascar, writes that the immigration by Jews, Persians , Indians, even the Chinese give the great variety of racial types existent in Madagascar.

The first Europeans came to the island in 1500 though their impact on its history would be felt several hundred years later. The Malagasy people were divided into small clans. It was in the 17TH and 18TH centuries that the Sakalavas formed their kingdom and the Merina in the 19th century. Until the French occupation in 1895, the English language was used widely in diplomacy and among the educated people. King Radama invited missionaries to the island in 1818 from England to teach its people useful trades.

The oral tradition or ‘received narrative’ continues here still, as in India, in its depiction of society. While immigrants adapt to their new chosen countries, many yearn for their homeland clutching at ancient memories, handed down through the ages, along with a few inevitable changes. The new immigrants, whether they suffered as slaves or indentured labourers, survived by the adherence to these memories. The village storytellers were usually grandparents or aunts.

In Madagascar, people use proverbs, ohabolana, to sum up and pass judgments on a situation and also to control behaviour and thinking. The Malagasy say “words are like rice plants: they must be carefully arranged”. There are many tales, on the myths of creation, the origin of rice cultivation, the reason for animal sacrifice. Folktales the world over not only play a major role in transmitting the country’s cultural inheritance to their children, but can also convey several meanings simultaneously. Story -tellers repeat the words of long ago, not ‘lies’ – as a popular saying goes – but ‘as has been heard before’. The oral tradition usually does not have a perfect ending to each tale, in keeping with the reality of Life. Sometimes there is no ending at all.

A traditional form of oral literature. It includes speech–making and story–telling, using allegory, double entendre, proverbs. The speaker continues to talk about the subject for as long as possible while avoiding the subject directly.

Interesting facts
Famous birds in folktales, just as we have the Garuda in the Ramayana, the Giant Roc (or Rokh) in Sindbad the sailor, who carries Sindbad off, is said to have originated here. The Gaint Roc is also mentioned by Marco Polo. The legend is said to have been inspired by discoveries of the huge eggs of the flightless Aepyornis bird of Madagascar, which has been extinct since 300 years. This is the famous ‘Elephant Bird’ in Madagascar, which grew to weigh half a ton and laid eggs up to two feet long. The legend of the aggressive and 10 foot long Griffin is also associated with this bird. The Aepyornis was incapable of flight and there are no elephants in Madagascar!

Professor David Bivar of the School of Oriental and African studies, London University, suggests in his research that these tales are a result of exaggerated reports about different birds: huge African eagles and even the now extinct New Zealand Harpagornis. He feels reports from early sea-farers about giant bird-eggs led to the myths of the half-lion half -bird creature that passed from ancient Asian to Greek and Roman and ultimately, medieval European mythology.

Ancient Customs ~
The Turning of the Bones

The dead are brought out every ten years and lovingly reburied after their cloth coverings have been changed. This called Famadihana, the second burial ceremony or the ‘turning of the bones’. This is primarily a Merina custom. It is believed that ancestors remain with the family after death and play just as important a role in the family. Though the ceremony is sombre in nature, it is not considered a time of mourning and is held during the winter months of August and September. Celebrations can last up to two or three days and are held at intervals of three or five years. A traditional healer, called ombiasy is called an appropriate number of oxen, Zebu, are sacrificed and the presence of strangers is often considered a positive omen. The extended families come together at this time. Musicians are hired and paid handsomely. Many new mats are bought for this occasion for the corpses to be placed upon. The new ‘winding sheet’, as it is termed, that is the fresh cloth – covering is a hand- woven pure silk cloth, about two and half meters square- called Lamba. This is dyed a dark red with the bark of the Nato tree or an imported dye. Little glass beads are stitched into the material, which also has narrow black, pink, yellow, green, and white strips. This kind of cloth is not used by any living person. The ceremony takes place at sunset and the band plays for the duration of the rites that last a few hours. There must be no silence in this ancestral worship. It is taboo to mention the name(s) of the deceased. They are addressed by different names.

Vintana or destiny is also a part of the Malagasy heritage. Fate is based on a person’s date and time of birth, similar to Karma. The Malagasys’ respect and reverence for their ancestors, the razana, pervades modern times. The fady is a system of local taboos that help maintain good relations with ancestors. The fady may differ from place to place: it may be fady to whistle on a particular stretch of land, or past a certain tree, or to eat pork or to talk about crocodiles. The fady may also apply to burial sites or tombs.

It is the living culture of a country, its dance, its music, the oral tradition encompassing fables, stories, poetry, local customs that include ancestral rites and ceremonies, that depict its very soul. Or the chadariya, as Kabir called it: The Cloth of Life – which we must all weave as we live. Madagascar is truly an amazing and unusual country.

Malagasy cuisine
A blend of flavours, delicate with a heavy French influence. Still one can find fiery hot red and green chili peppers that are pounded with garlic and ginger, with a few teaspoons of oil and served as a chutney called Sakay. Hot, hot, hot!

Contributed by Ms. Jayshree M. Tripathi who was in Madagascar in 2002 onwards for a few years when her husband was India’s ambassador to Madagascar. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Times of India 1986
The Hindu January 2001