Rituals and traditions are so ingrained in our lives that they often go unnoticed. It’s only when you step outside your own culture and venture to another that you can appreciate the many diverse beliefs and practices that exist around the world. These customs can be mundane or spectacular, serious or joyous, sacred or secular. They can be shared by entire cultures and communities or vary from family to family. While some of these traditions have stood the test of time, weathering the changes of modern life, others are fragile and at risk of disappearing entirely; this is perhaps what makes witnessing them such a special experience. When it comes to spiritual rituals around the world, these are some of the most enduring; from the art of picking the perfect husky dog sledding team in Norway to Native American Navajo sweat lodges, experiencing another culture’s customs gives you a deeper understanding of a place and its people.
The town of San Juan Chamula, one of Mexico’s few autonomous townships, is known for its fascinating ancient rituals and beliefs. This is a place where shamanism and folk medicine are commonplace, the forests are said to be filled with spirits, and the majority of the locals speak Tzotzil, one of the 30 Mayan languages. In the heart of the town stands the whitewashed San Juan Bautista Temple – perhaps the most unusual church you’ll ever visit – where an extraordinary brand of pre-Hispanic Christianity, known as Chamulan Catholicism, is practised. From the moment you set foot inside the church, it feels like you’ve travelled back in time. In place of neat rows of pews and an ornate altar, there is a floor strewn with pine needles, hundreds of flickering candles, trails of incense smoke and chanting healers using eggs and bones to create treatments. It’s not uncommon to see chicken sacrifices, along with worshipping locals drinking the potent local moonshine pox to heighten the sensation. Taking photos is strictly forbidden inside the church (along with wearing hats) so the only option is to take it all in with your eyes and commit the remarkable scenes to memory.
Selecting a Husky Dog Sledding Team
Finnmark, Norwegian Lapland
The ancient art of dog-sledding was once an integral part of life, used by everyone from Arctic explorers to Alaskan pioneers, and remains one of our favourite spiritual rituals around the world. In the icy snowscapes of Norwegian Lapland, you can still experience the magic for yourself, beginning with the ritual of picking the perfect team of dogs. When you arrive at the dog sled cabin, don’t be surprised if the dogs in the enclosures begin to howl with excitement. After all, your arrival means one thing – some of them are going to get to run. To a soundtrack of enthusiastic yelps, the musher will determine your height, weight and strength before handpicking a team of dogs and securing them into their harnesses. The idea is to choose a team that work together harmoniously and are strong enough to pull you, but not too powerful that you won’t be able to apply the brake – a rudimentary spring-loaded plate with spikes on the underside that you jump on to slow the sledge. When your team of two, four, six or eight huskies are in place, you’ll have a briefing – in short, don’t fall off because the dogs will keep running and leave you stranded – and then you’re off. The cacophony of the dogs that weren’t picked fades into the distance to be replaced by the sound of paws padding in unison and the hiss of the runners slicing through the snow.
Meeting the Oracle
Ladakh – The Land of High Passes – is a remarkable region that blends the history and culture of Tibet with the starkly beautiful landscapes of mountainous northern India. With its remote gompas (Tibetan temples), fluttering prayer flags and colourful prayer wheels, you can almost feel spirituality swirling in the air. One of the most intriguing spiritual rituals around the world and arguably the best way to understand the region’s culture is to visit an oracle. Also referred to as faith-healers and shamans, oracles perform traditional rituals to aid those in need of physical healing or spiritual guidance. Many are Tibetan Buddhists and spend up to six years training under a senior oracle in secluded monasteries and villages to learn Buddhist scripture and meditation, and how to become a vessel for spirits and deities. Once approved – usually by a high-ranking Tibetan Lama – oracles tend to work from home, where they meet their patients and discuss their ailments. The most memorable moment for most outsiders is when the oracle begins to chant, ring bells, pray and beat drums to bring on a trance-like state. During this time, it is believed a spirit enters their body and possesses them, providing wisdom and guidance which they can then share with their patients.
Navajo Sweat Lodge
Humans have been taking part in ritual sweats for thousands of years and they are practised around the world, from Turkish hammams and Japanese onsens to Native American sweat lodges. This age-old tradition is often likened to a sauna, but beyond the surface-level similarities – a cosy enclosed space, hot steaming rocks, and a lot of sweating – this deeply spiritual ceremony is a world away from anything you’d find at your local gym. Stemming from Native American traditions, sweat lodge ceremonies are highly sacred, from the careful construction of the dome-shaped structure (traditionally built using willow bark and draped with blankets and animal skins) to the prayers offered during the sessions, which usually last for several hours. After changing into loose, lightweight clothing, take a seat around a fire pit in the dark womb-like space while a trained firekeeper brings in hot basalt rocks which have been warmed on a fire outside the tent. The ceremony that follows – which involves prayers, chanting, and free-flowing conversation – is designed to encourage healing, gratitude, reflection and connection, not only with yourself and those around you, but also Mother Nature. While spiritual and enlightening, this experience can be challenging, and as the temperature rises, the idea is to ride out the discomfort and turn your attention inward, although you are of course welcome to step outside at any point.